War Stories

[originally published May 2009.]

For humans, war remains an inexhaustible subject of storytelling and analysis — such a compelling topic that experts trace the origin of historiography to the Athenian general Thucydides, who wrote The Peloponnesian War nearly 2,500 years ago.

article-14-drawing

The appeal of war stories, whether we read them for elevation or escape, is eternal. Science fiction, like every other genre whose authors have written for economic gain and popular acclaim, has plenty of combat. We’ll focus on two novels at opposite ends of the SF timeline: Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo-winning classic, Starship Troopers, and newcomer John Scalzi’s Hugo-nominated novel, Old Man’s War.

From the Halls of Montezuma

Although war has proven an eternally engaging subject, its portrayal varies widely. Science fiction authors live in a real world, and unless they’re remarkably oblivious, the wars around them shape their imaginations. For the two books I focus on here, we’ll look at how contemporary war experiences shaped their respective authors’ writings.

In Heinlein’s 1959 Starship Troopers, young Juan “Johnnie” Rico defies his wealthy family’s wishes and joins the military. Because he was an indifferent student in high school, Rico ends up in the Mobile Infantry. He refers to his service as mudfeet, but the Mobile Infantry are clearly lineal descendants of the Marines. More than anything else, this tells us a lot about Heinlein’s conception of the foot soldier’s role in the age of interstellar travel.

Portraying military life from a low-ranking foot soldier’s viewpoint is a relatively new phenomenon. In the mid-19th century, French painter Jean-François Millet scandalized his contemporaries by painting peasants in poses and at scales hitherto reserved for the nobility. Similarly, works on war before the mid-20th century largely focused on the officer class. Although Voltaire included in his most famous novel an episode in which Candide is pressed into military service, fiction with a private in the army as its protagonist appears to have emerged only after World War II, perhaps because of the amount of writing by and for footsoldiers in publications like Stars and Stripes. This footsoldier fiction introduced many now-universal memes: boot camp with the brutal drill sergeant concealing a heart of gold, the hardships of young recruits leading to deep emotional bonds, racial and ethnic stereotypes rejected as the recruits mature, and the rites of passage endured before their emergence as strong, vigorous, competent, and motivated soldiers.

When Heinlein released Starship Troopers in 1959, fighting in the Korean War had ended six years earlier, and World War II had been over for just 14 years. Although Heinlein hadn’t seen combat, he had graduated from Annapolis and served as a naval officer for five years before his discharge with tuberculosis in 1934. He spent the war working at the Philadelphia Navy shipyard in the company of fellow science fiction writers Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp.

Starship Troopers features a few technically interesting concepts, mostly in the form of the powered armor worn in combat. Heinlein describes this armor in considerable detail in the initial combat scenario and later in Rico’s training flashbacks. The suit completely encases the soldier and mechanically amplifies his physical motions. Heinlein delights in explaining the concept of negative feedback, which keeps the mechanical amplifiers under control. The armor holds numerous weapons and large supplies of ammunition, sometimes even small nuclear weapons. Heinlein develops concepts of tactical operations in these suits, built on the notion that a soldier can jump very high while wearing one, creating the meme that soldiers operate “on the bounce.” Because gravity continues to work in the old-fashioned way, most of Heinlein’s powered suit tactics involve taking advantage of the hang time at the top of the jump arc. During this phase, the soldier can identify and fire weapons at targets. Additionally, suits have a rocket assist to add time or altitude to the jumps.

Starship Troopers opens with a vivid description of a sortie by Johnnie Rico in one of these suits. Unfortunately, this is the book’s high point, and it deteriorates rapidly from there. Heinlein was then struggling financially — some of his teen science fiction had achieved a modest success, but he was still economically insecure. The political left had begun to campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons testing, and Heinlein came down strongly in opposition to the protesters. In Starship Troopers, a deeply antidemocratic book, he exhibits a society in which the right to vote is reserved for military veterans, a group that included him, of course. The book is interrupted periodically by long asides in which Heinlein sententiously argues this point. His device is primarily flashbacks to Rico’s experiences in a class called “History and Moral Philosophy,” taught by a veteran who self-referentially makes Heinlein’s point. Because the novel occurs in a world in which this is true, the instructor argues that its current truth is a sound justification for its fundamental rightness. Heinlein seems to believe that this little piece of amateur sophistry will somehow fool us into agreement. Starship Troopers staggers on through numerous extended misadventures during which Rico advances in rank, becomes an officer, and encounters in the military several of the people he’d left behind.

One of the most telling features of Starship Troopers is its conception of the enemy and the reason for war. The enemies are pseudo-arachnid hive organisms referred to as “bugs.” Their reason for attacking humans so insistently and implacably is simple competition for real estate. The bugs are incomprehensibly evil, completely without redeeming virtues; they’re merciless killers. Humans, in turn, show them no mercy. Compare this conception of the enemy with the portrayal of Germans and Japanese in contemporary Allied fiction during World War II, or, more to the point, communists during the Korean War.

In 1997, Touchstone released a dreadful movie adaptation of Starship Troopers. It preserved the nonsense about enfranchising only military veterans, along with a few of the character names, and then went rapidly downhill. Fortunately, no careers were ruined by the movie — no A- or B-level talent appeared in any of the roles. There’s an ironic symmetry that Starship Troopers, the novel, came out in the same year as Plan 9 From Outer Space, arguably the worst movie ever made. The film version of Starship Troopers tried for the title but failed.

Starship Troopers was controversial in several ways. The weakness of the character development, the strident advocacy of odd political views, and the flimsy plot have all contributed to ongoing criticism from the science fiction community, among which is the 1965 satire Bill, the Galactic Hero. Harry Harrison has acknowledged writing this antiwar novel as a direct rebuttal to Starship Troopers. It starts with Bill’s forcible induction into the army by a press gang and ends with Bill, now a recruiting sergeant, kidnapping his younger brother into the army, ignoring the tearful entreaties of his own mother. In between is a sprawling adventure in which Bill experiences bureaucratic stupidity, cowardice, boredom, terror, bravery, bloodshed, luck, and all the other “joys” of war. As with most of Harrison’s work, it’s a bit loose and wild, as if he worked in real time without rewriting or editing.

Heinlein wrote Starship Troopers during the height of the Cold War, slightly more than a decade after it commenced and 30 years before its end at the hands of joyous German crowds in Berlin. Although some of the irrational terror of the bugs is grounded in Cold War fears, it’s also clear that the real roots of Heinlein’s creation were in World War II. Early in the novel, one of Heinlein’s characters dismisses the destructive role of nuclear weapons in favor of the persuasive power of the foot soldier’s gentle touch. Is this tongue in cheek or some realization that nuclear weapons are too powerful for real use? Because of the comprehensiveness of nuclear weapons, the Cold War was a far more intellectual struggle than almost anything to date. It required thoughtful analysis of potential strategies and deep study of one’s adversaries, very different from World War II.

Influential Works and Conflicts

Author Title Year of Original Publication
The Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE)
Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War 410 BCE
Voltaire Candide 1759
World War II (1939-1945)
Robert A. Heinlein Starship Troopers 1959
Edward D. Wood, Jr. (director) Plan 9 from Outer Space (film) 1959
Harry Harrison Bill, The Galactic Hero 1965
Vietnam War (1959-1975)
Joe Haldeman The Forever War 1974
Orson Scott Card Ender’s Game 1985
Paul Verhoeven (director) Starship Troopers (film) 1997
Iraq War (2003-????)
John Scalzi Old Man’s War 2005
John Scalzi The Ghost Brigades 2006
John Scalzi The Last Colony 2007
John Scalzi The Sagan Diary 2007
John Scalzi Zoe’s Tale 2008

No Planet for Old Men

An entire micro-genre called military science fiction sprung up from Starship Troopers. It has produced far too many stories to cover here, but it includes books such as The Forever War, deeply influenced by the Vietnam War, and the Ender’s Game series.

One of the most entertaining recent contributions is the work of John Scalzi, who started his career with a successful blog called “Whatever” (whatever.scalzi.com). Scalzi reveals himself in his blog to be a prolific writer with a broad range of interests, a clever turn of phrase, and a sense of humor. He achieved some acclaim with two books of essays from his blog. When he turned his hand to fiction, however, he showed himself in a new light.

In 2005, Scalzi introduced Old Man’s War, his first novel, to significant acclaim — a Hugo nomination. Structurally it’s a lot like the Hugo-winning Starship Troopers in that it follows a man, this one named John Perry, who joins the infantry and leaves Earth to fight among the stars. In Scalzi’s story, however, Perry leaves Earth shortly after his 75th birthday, and we later learn that everyone who joins the Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) does so at age 75. Perry and his wife registered their intent to enlist along with their required DNA samples at age 65, but before they reach enlistment age, Perry’s wife dies, thus laying the groundwork for the second novel in the series, The Ghost Brigades. It emerges that people on Earth are almost entirely ignorant of life on the many colony planets and are thus excluded from almost all the new technology used in the colonies. The Colonial Union uses Earth as either a source of colonists or recruits for the CDF. Space travel is a one-way ticket off Earth, whether for 75-year-olds enlisting in the CDF or for younger people embarking to join a colony.

Shortly after Perry and his fellow recruits head to boot camp, they receive a battery of tests. Their minds are then transferred to young bodies fabricated from their own DNA, along with various other odds and ends that render them nearly superhuman. This includes an integrated supercomputer plus a wireless network interface that provides them with vast quantities of information, incredible analytical capabilities, and instant telepathic communication with each other. The deal between recruits and the CDF is that they’ll serve for up to 10 years, at which point they can be discharged and transferred into a new body (still based on their own DNA but without the superhuman modifications). Of course, the new buff bodies are also amply supplied with both libido and stamina, so an entire chapter is dedicated to heavy breathing.

When Perry arrives at boot camp, we meet the obligatory drill sergeant, Master Sergeant Antonio Ruiz, who greets the recruits with the usual dismaying assessment of their potential: “We’ve clearly just lost the battle for the goddamn universe.” Ruiz, at least, has a sense of literary perspective. He informs the trainees that unlike movie drill instructors, he has no heart of gold, and he already knows that they’ll be disappointing disasters.

The rest of the novel is relatively predictable. Perry distinguishes himself by using the new technology with greater creativity than his fellow recruits. Of course, that’s a given — otherwise, the story would have been about one of them instead. The CDF’s enemies are rather more complex than those in Starship Troopers. We meet the Consu, a race with dramatically superior technology whose fights with other space–faring races seem more for their own entertainment than for any other purpose, and the Obin, a race that might have been uplifted to sentience by the Consu and who figure prominently in The Last Colony.

So, what happens to the expensively fabricated soldier bodies if recruits die between when they registered their intent to enlist and their actual enlistment? The answer, revealed at the end of Old Man’s War and providing the core framework for The Ghost Brigades, is that they’re trained as soldiers. Because they inherit no persona from their DNA donor, they’re socially distinct from the superhuman soldiers in the regular CDF. These Special Forces, as they’re known informally among the regular CDF, bring no baggage and adapt more fully to their bodies’ capabilities: they’re less inhibited and hence more effective. At the end of Old Man’s War, Perry encounters Jane Sagan, the Special Forces soldier created from his late wife’s body, thus setting up the major plot line for the next two novels.

Then and Now

Technology came a long way between 1959 and 2005, so Scalzi’s soldiers have turbocharged DNA, nanites in their bloodstreams, supercomputer augmentation, and weapons that synthesize projectiles from a supply of nanobots, whereas Heinlein’s foot soldiers are equipped with mechanical armor and battlefield-support electronics more reminiscent of an attack plane than anything else. This changes the entire dynamic of battle — where Heinlein has to spend more words on the mechanics of getting around, Scalzi can focus on team dynamics and battlefield emotions.

Even more importantly, the concept of the opponent has changed. Many 1959 readers were quite content to imagine an incomprehensibly evil enemy, whereas modern readers expect a complex and comprehensible conflict. Moreover — and Scalzi makes this explicit in The Last Colony — the relationship between ourselves and the government waging war on our behalf has changed.

World War II had a clear moral imperative: the Axis countries waged an unprovoked war against their neighbors and created a vast industrial enterprise to commit genocide. This moral dimension combined with tactical urgency made the Allied fight imperative. At the time, there wasn’t much skepticism about the government’s aims or its behavior. Later reflection showed defects in Allied behavior, as in the treatment of Japanese-Americans, as well as policy errors that contributed to the descent into war, but all in all, there was virtually no organized dissent in Allied countries.

This unanimity of public support for war wasn’t just unusual by historical standards, it set expectations for a generation or two after World War II. Perhaps if the American leadership had been more used to making a public case for war, the entry into Vietnam might have happened under different terms or might not have happened at all. Instead, the government blundered into war assuming complete public support for its decisions. Certainly, it was astonished by the level of dissent that arose as the war dragged on.

So Scalzi, writing during the current Iraq War, couldn’t simplify the casus belli the way Heinlein had in Starship Troopers. Where Heinlein’s readers saw no incongruities in the relationship between humans and their enemies, Scalzi’s readers would have found such simplicity deeply unsatisfying. Needless to say, if the cause of war had to be more complex in Scalzi’s writing, the relationship among the government, soldiers, and civilians must likewise be different. This produced in The Last Colony a much more complex and, in many ways, more appealing conclusion.

Scalzi’s success with the Old Man’s War universe has led to two sequels and a pair of spinoffs. The first spinoff is The Sagan Diary, which reveals some of the contents of Jane Sagan’s BrainPal after she’s demobilized from her Special Forces body at the end of The Ghost Brigades. The second is Zoe’s Tale, recently nominated for a Hugo, a novel that tells the story of The Last Colony from the viewpoint of Jane Sagan and John Perry’s adopted daughter, Zoe. It also fills in some of the plot gaps, though I won’t spoil either book by revealing the details.

When I first read Starship Troopers, many years ago, I enjoyed it thoroughly and thought it was a tremendous book. Rereading it recently, I found myself compelled to reassess it as a very weak book, far from Heinlein’s best efforts. If you only read Old Man’s War, you’ll likely perceive it as having a very similar structure and political orientation to Starship Troopers. If you read the two sequels, however, you discover a more complex and ambiguous portrayal of the enterprise of warfare. Perhaps if Heinlein had written a sequel to Starship Troopers we might have seen a more subtle conception from him as well. We certainly know from his later writings that he had the capacity. We can’t tell if Old Man’s War and its sequels, which by today’s standards are dramatically superior, will have the legs of Starship Troopers, but we can certainly say that war stories will remain part of science fiction for the foreseeable future and that contemporary conceptions of politics and war will continue to shape these works.

A Young Geek’s Fancy Turns to…Science Fiction?

[originally published May 2005]

With all due respect to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, spring is the best time to plan your summer reading (besides, this magazine isn’t the place to explore the racier topics in his poem Locksley Hall). If you go to the beach in August without a couple of good, fat, books already researched and acquired, you risk spending your precious time in expensive resort bookstores, browsing among stacks of trashy titles, embarrassing yourself with plaintive requests to friends or relatives for books, or, even worse, reducing yourself to working your way through a stack of moldering Archie comics. Your reading time is too precious to waste—don’t become a poster geek for the Wasted Summer Reading Foundation!

Reading on the beach

A good summer book must meet several exacting requirements. It must be entertaining without being taxing — we’re on vacation here, so War and Peace won’t do. The book should be long, preferably very long — the number of hours we have at the beach is surprisingly large, and we don’t want to run out of book before we run out of vacation. Plus, a hefty tome is that much more useful for holding down a towel corner on a windy day at the beach. Although the story should be fun and engaging, it shouldn’t be a thrilling page-turner — we don’t want to be so compulsively enthralled that we can’t easily put it down when the lifeguard blows the whistle signaling that the day is over. It can’t be too controversial or steamy — we’ll be reading it out in the open in a family environment. Finally, the author should be a known and reliable quantity: it never pays to experiment on vacation with a new writer who might turn out to be a complete turkey, and even the most reliable book adviser can recommend a dud.

All the writers I describe here appeared in previous installments of Biblio Tech. All are well known and successful, and with one exception, Cryptonomicon, the books described here generally aren’t regarded as their best work, although they’re certainly well respected. In fact, Vernor Vinge’s A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky both won Hugo awards for best novel, so we’re not talking about casual schlock.

Neocriminal power

William Gibson is justly famous for his Sprawl and Bridge novels and is credited with starting off the cyberpunk genre with his short story Johnny Mnemonic. When Pattern Recognition came out in 2003, however, the buzz was less than positive. “It’s not science fiction,” sniffed one of my cronies, “it’s just a whodunit.” So I put my copy aside, where it sat for a year or more until one weekend day when it finally became more attractive than going out in the rain to find something else.

As it turned out, my buddy was completely off the mark. The book is much more subtle than Gibson’s prior work, continuing a trend he started with the Bridge novels. Pattern Recognition retains hints of the old Gibson, particularly the flashes of dark neocriminal power that have become his virtual trademarks, but the viewpoint is different. Cayce Pollard isn’t the typical Gibson protagonist: she’s an upper-middle-class professional with an exotic specialty and a top-tier clientele. As it turns out, she’s tough, smart, and intuitive, and, naturally, her adventures take her into some very Gibsonian environments, but somehow the sense of an overwhelmingly evil world populated by vicious vermin with 23 chromosomes is absent.

Because of this as much as in spite of it, Pattern Recognition is one of my favorite Gibson novels. He no longer needs to whack me over the head with his creativity and vision; he’s content enough to develop it slowly and carefully, playing with interesting images and entertaining me. He introduces his concept of jet lag on the first page: “Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.” This whimsical imagery lets him set the story’s scene and atmosphere, but it also gives you an insight into the characters. Like us, they’re obsessed with constructing predictive models of the world around them, but they’re humorous enough to make fun of themselves.

The greatest generation

In Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson reveals himself as a writer capable of constructing a gripping epic novel. By deftly knitting a modern cyberthriller with a historical story about World War II that includes real people like Alan Turing as characters, Stephenson creates a tour de force. He manages to convey both the chaos and the excitement of the Allies’ intelligence efforts to hack the Enigma encryption system. Remarkably, he demystifies some of the 1940s-era intelligence processes without descending into mind-numbing detail. By the way, those of you traveling to the UK for your vacation should make an excursion to Bletchley Park, which is being restored as a museum, to see the now-declassified scenes of some of the action.

The book’s major thematic pillars include wartime efforts to cloak the Enigma breaks, a modern effort to create a data haven, and a search for a huge cache of gold buried in a deep maze of mines in the Philippines. The data haven is a legally, physically, and (bear with me, we don’t have a good word for this yet) network-ly secure place in which people can safely store data. A philosophical discussion early in the book argues that the data represent true value and that physical objects are only incidentally and transiently valuable.

Beyond the epic historical plot that incorporates complex elements of cryptography and intelligence, Stephenson also exhibits a delightfully quirky and vivid imagination. A description about the preparation and consumption of a bowl of cereal runs for several pages, and I still marvel at how he makes it fascinating (something I can’t possibly convince anyone who hasn’t read the story to believe). Similarly, he describes a titanic struggle between an oral surgeon and some particularly gnarly wisdom teeth, making it both memorable and readable. Of course, with more than 900 pages to work through, neither of these excursions amounts to much more than a flicker.

Group think

Each of Verner Vinge’s Hugo-award-winning novels — A Fire upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky — is an epic in itself. The two books represent two different stages in the life and times of a picaresque character named Pham Nuwen. In Fire, a transcendent AI threatens all sentient life in the galaxy, and the race is on to figure out a way to stop it. Vinge presents some very elegant models of physics that permit faster-than-light travel in certain parts of the galaxy, while forbidding it in others. This turns out to be a key characteristic of his universe, so he provides clever diagrams of the galaxy that explain how the speed limits vary with location. Galactic civilization communicates and shares information via netnews; current netizens will recognize the header syntax and posting style. It’s good to know that thousands of years from now creatures from a thousand systems will continue to obey the RFCs!

Elsewhere in Fire, Vinge introduces a race of group intelligences. Each “individual” in this race is made up of anywhere from four to eight vaguely dog-like organisms. Individually, they’re no brighter than dogs, but when four or more of them get close enough together, they can meld into a single “person” with higher-level capabilities (such as thought, tool manipulation, and so on). Vinge does a wonderful job exploring the implications of such a race of beings, including introducing two-way radios that let individuals dissociate themselves into “singletons” without losing consciousness. Numerous other biological oddities inhabit the story, from sentient trees to nasty little people with beautiful butterfly wings. Clearly, no brief review can do justice to the richness of the universe Vinge creates in A Fire upon the Deep.

In Deepness, Vinge returns to the same universe as in Fire, but 30,000 years earlier. The story focuses on Pham Nuwen, who had a less important role in Fire, but who occupies center stage here. Despite the continuity of Nuwen’s character, Deepness stands entirely independently of Fire. As the story begins, two interstellar expeditions arrive virtually simultaneously, seeking first contact with the spider-like inhabitants of an unusual planet. One is a Qeng Ho trading fleet and the other a fleet from a totalitarian civilization (the Emergents) that survives by brutal mind control. Terrible treason leads to the enslavement of the Qeng Ho by the Emergents, and the rest of the book describes the traders’ struggle to regain their freedom. The flashbacks from Nuwen’s life that Vinge interweaves into the story provide insight into the character’s personal history, explaining the struggles and conflicts that define the man.

Deepness also has some good insider jokes for geeks. At one point, Vinge describes how the computers that drive the Ramscoop starships, and essentially all other systems in daily life, have a calendar whose epoch is the instant of the first human landing on Earth’s moon. Nuwen’s research, however, reveals that this is a myth: the two dates are separated by almost six months. The first human landing on the moon was at 1:47 p.m. EDT on 20 July 1969; the epoch for Unix clocks, of course, is at 12:00 a.m. GMT on 1 January 1970. I guess this means that thousands of years from now, starships will run Unix on all of their systems. This then leads to a discussion of the inescapable fact that old software never dies, it just gets buried under layers of new software.

Each book is quite remarkable — few, if any, novels can boast that both the original and the sequel won the Hugo. Although both are quite different, they’re both worth reading.

Influential Works

Author Title Year of Original Publication
Vernor Vinge A Fire Upon The Deep 1992
Vernor Vinge A Deepness In The Sky 1999
Neal Stephenson Cryptonomicon 1999
William Gibson Pattern Recognition 2003
Neal Stephenson Quicksilver 2003
Neal Stephenson The Confusion 2004
Neal Stephenson The System of the World 2004

Conclusion

Ideally, I’ve helped you provide yourself with a happy summer vacation. This summer I’ll be reading Neal Stephenson’s recent offerings: Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World. I’ve read about a third of Quicksilver so far, and I’m looking forward to completing the 2,652 pages of the hardcover editions. I can’t review them for this article, of course, because I haven’t finished them, so watch for another possible installment of Biblio Tech this fall.

[Author’s note: Well, as of the republication of this article on my blog, I haven’t managed to finish Quicksilver, much less the rest of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.]

Use The Force, Luke!

[originally published November 2004]

What presents a greater threat to our future? If we listen to sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge along with Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Marvin Minsky, and their ilk, transcendent AIs threaten the very foundations of our world. But if we listen to Eric Drexler and Neal Stephenson (among others), we should worry more, or perhaps less, about threats from nanotechnology — in other words, death by gray goo. Are we living in denial? Vinge’s basic argument for singularity is compelling, give or take any real understanding of what a transcendent AI’s software might look like. Nanotech is similarly compelling, although the gray-goo thesis is less likely than some alarmists would have us believe — autonomous nanofactories that can “live off the land” won’t happen any time soon or by accident.

article-10-image

In this final installment of Biblio Tech, we’ll examine some of the various views of life and intelligence that have thriven in sci-fi over the years. We’ll see how these views, coupled with a belief in or desire for human exceptionalism, contribute to our tendency to look away from threats, real or imagined, like those envisioned by the possibly fevered minds of the futurists, prognosticators, and sci-fi writers.

Vitalism

In the early days of the science of chemistry — from the 17th century through the early part of the 19th century — chemists divided their subjects of study into two classes: organic and inorganic compounds. Rough treatment could transform organic substances (wood, oil, cloth) into inorganic ones (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen), but only living things could produce organic ones. This asymmetry was the basis for a philosophical principle called vitalism, which held that organisms are imbued with a life force that transcends known or knowable natural laws.

Over the course of the 19th century, progress in chemical synthesis — notably, the German chemist Adolph Wilhelm Hermann Kolbe’s synthesis of acetic acid from its essential chemical constituents in 1845 — chipped away at vitalism to the point where it had essentially vanished from chemistry by 1900. However, several recent sci-fi works and a range of current events show how that concept still survives.

In George Lucas’s Star Wars films, for example, Jedi knights rely on their training in the ways of a mystical energy source they call the Force. As Yoda says in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, “Its energy surrounds us, and binds us.” Later, in Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Lucas introduces midi-chlorians, symbiotic life forms that inhabit human cells to enable communication with the Force. Jedi master Qui-Gon Jinn says to the young Anakin Skywalker, “Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force.” The Force is more than just the Jedi knights’ magical power; it’s what the vitalists conceived of back in the 16th and 17th centuries, a life force that distinguishes living from nonliving things.

It’s Alive!

We’re left with two possibilities for the future of transcendent AIs: that Vinge et al.’s predictions will come to pass, or that some limitation will prevent such an AI from being constructed. What might this limitation be? For one, the complexity required for duplicating or exceeding the human brain’s capabilities might be significantly larger than Vinge assumes. However, even a 100-fold or 1,000-fold increase in complexity doesn’t buy much time when confronted with the exponential growth in technological capability that Moore’s law continues to provide. The only remaining possibility is that duplicating the brain’s function and performance is simply impossible without an extra ingredient, one that we can’t engineer but that comes from somewhere else. Can such a thing, if it exists, even be added to a construct, or does it have some sort of limitation restricting it to living brains? Some recent sci-fi explores explicit or implicit assumptions of this sort.

This missing ingredient, which we could call the mind if we want to be neutral or the soul if we want to take a quasi-religious stand, has been controversial for a long time. If a soul is created to inhabit a future person, when is it created and when does it first inhabit the person’s physical manifestation? There’s no widely accepted answer to this question, or else there wouldn’t be a controversy over when an embryo becomes a person or whether to allow stem-cell research. But the creation of an unambiguously human-equivalent AI, like the synthesis of acetic acid in 1845, would spell the beginning of the end for the last important refuge of vitalism.

When David Gerrold’s 1972 novel When Harlie Was One debuted, it was one of very few early sci-fi novels after Isaac Asimov’s robot stories to explore the ramifications of a human-equivalent AI. This otherwise flawed book also provides an extensive discussion of some interesting ethical problems we have yet to address — for instance, whether shutting down such a machine could be construed as murder. The author considers some of the chilling implications of a massively connected extremely intelligent machine, considering its ability to invade privacy and manipulate people. Gerrold thankfully avoids a sophomoric exploration of whether Harlie has a soul; he does, however, spend many pages on whether an AI can love someone or something. He makes the standard error of arguing that the machine is so smart that to behave benevolently toward humans is the only option, an error made by the early atom bomb scientists in their efforts to grapple with the implications of their achievement. Heinlein makes the same assumption in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, but at least he can be forgiven because he doesn’t make the error explicit (he also writes a good yarn). Interestingly, Gerrold’s greatest claim to immortality in Harlie is probably his introduction of the notion of a computer virus, articulating software virus behavior quite accurately and even giving us the name “virus.” Neal Stephenson gave us a much more lyrical conception of a computer virus in his 1991 novel Snowcrash in which he explored the notion of viruses that could migrate between cyberspace and meatspace, a rather sobering concept.

It’s My Creation

In Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels, we get yet another (albeit better put together) exploration of vitalism. Pullman, like J.K. Rowling, has mastered the art of writing novels ostensibly for children and young adults but that also pull in adult readers. This work doesn’t really qualify as SF, but it nonetheless qualifies for inclusion here because of his impressive recruitment of recent cosmological research into an otherwise plain vanilla parallel-universe fantasy. Of course, the fact that he writes well doesn’t hurt either. Pullman sets his stories, or at least their anchor points, in Oxford, England, in several parallel universes. The vital fluid in Pullman’s universe is the dark matter that cosmologists have been scratching their heads about for the past several years. Studies of the dynamics of galactic cluster behavior suggest that somewhere between 88 and 95 percent of the universe’s mass is dark matter (that is, not stars). According to cosmologists, only a tiny fraction of this matter could be planets and interstellar dust and gas; the vast bulk must either be neutrinos or something more exotic.

Pullman starts with this and weaves a fantasy based on a simple observation: there’s so much of this material and it interacts with normal matter so weakly, it can take on an extra job. In the His Dark Materials universe, the dark matter, referred to as dust, is the vital essence of sentient life.

Influential Works

Author Title Year of Original Publication
Stanley L. Miller A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions 1953
David Gerrold When Harlie Was One 1969, 1972
George Lucas Star Wars IV: A New Hope 1977
George Lucas Star Wars V: The Emperor Strikes Back 1980
K. Eric Dressler Engines of Creation 1986
Neal Stephenson Snowcrash 1991
Philip Pullman The Golden Compass 1996
Philip Pullman The Subtle Knife 1997
George Lucas Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace 1999
Philip Pullman The Amber Spyglass 2000

Conclusion

What exactly is vitalism’s appeal? Why has this concept, defeated scientifically again and again, continued to survive, providing sustenance to otherwise unsupportable theories? I think it’s simple: vitalism supports the notion that the human consciousness is unique and special. Although we know the Earth is not the center of the physical universe, we’re still less than eager to give up the notion that we occupy the center of the intellectual universe. What if we create an AI with an IQ of a billion? Or we encounter alien intellects on the same scale? How would you feel if, relative to most advanced intellects in the universe, you were no more intelligent than an amoeba?

Although it’s pure speculation on my part, this is the same impulse that moved the contemporary establishment to react so negatively to the Copernican heresy that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Copernicus, Galileo, and others who advocated the heliocentric theory provoked with simple truths a reaction so violent that even today we call any radical proposal “revolutionary.”

A fond farewell

Blogger’s note – this farewell message appeared with the tenth article. After an interval one more article appeared, but then no more appeared until at least 2009.

Two years ago, this department launched along with IEEE Security & Privacy. In that time, we’ve explored a broad range of issues at the boundary between technology and society as expressed in science fiction. Our goal was to provoke thought and discussion within the engineering community, whose members contribute so much to the technology that changes our world but who generally hold back from the most vigorous debates about the larger impacts of technology on society.

The reception for Biblio Tech has been warm, as some readers have expressed to numerous members of the editorial board, and it has been a pleasure to write for and edit this department. However, after this issue, we will be removing Biblio Tech from the regular lineup of departments (although it might return from time to time on an irregular basis). Creating something like this had been a dream of mine for many years, and doing it has been extremely fulfilling. In the ten articles I’ve personally written, I’ve explored the bulk of themes that were on my mind when originally proposing the department. Rather than have Biblio Tech degenerate into a “what’s new in sci-fi this month,” we decided to dial it down. Thank you all for your generous attention and kind messages.

Biblio Tech Redux

Recently the editorial board of IEEE Security & Privacy magazine suggested that we revive Biblio Tech. The flattery was effective, and I agreed to write several more installments of the department, the first of which will probably appear in the March/April issue. I’ve been reading a lot of older SF recently, notably a collection of Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories and Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers“. In addition, I’ve recently completed John Scalzi’s wonderful “Old Man’s War” and its sequels “Ghost Brigades” and “The Last Colony.” I have my good friend Hal Stern to thank for the introduction to Scalzi’s work, for which I’ll get a suitable revenge at an appropriate later date.

Jennifer Government

[originally published September 2004]

One of the special pleasures of the Harry Potter stories is their send-up of modern consumer culture – from Bertie Botts’ Every Flavour Beans (and they do mean every flavor) to Chocolate Frogs, which come complete with a collectible card featuring a celebrity witch or wizard. Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, pokes fun at contemporary marketing and advertising with tongue-in-cheek warmth that manages to make her simultaneously attractive to Madison Avenue and the rest of us – a remarkable achievement.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Max Barry’s Jennifer Government, the satirical successor to his well-received first novel Syrup, takes a different angle on the consumer-marketing-gone-mad theme. Although Rowling’s products are entirely fanciful, they’re unmistakably patterned on things we all instantly recognize. Barry, however, doesn’t make up the company names he uses: rather, he includes a defensive paragraph at the front of his novel proclaiming, “So, let’s be clear; this is a work of fiction. The use of real company names is for literary effect only and definitely without permission.”

In Barry’s book, we enter a world in which countries have coalesced into giant confederations. The largest of these, the United States Federated Economic Blocs, includes the entire Western Hemisphere, Australia, southern Asia, South Africa, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the old Soviet Union. The second major bloc, named France, is composed of the rest of the EC plus China, while Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia make up the delicately disdained Fragmented Markets. Barry thoughtfully provides a map, although its role is purely atmospheric.

The world is different in other ways as well. Your surname is your employer’s name, so if your mom named you Joe and you work for IBM, you’re Joseph IBM. We don’t get a chance to meet any attorneys working for large multinamed partnerships, which is a shame. Understandably, unemployed people have a problem in this system, as do people with two jobs. Kids, of course, take the name of their school’s sponsor; somewhat fittingly, the biggest elementary school chains are operated by McDonald’s, Mattel, and Pepsi. The world’s major powers aren’t geographically-based governments but the frequent-buyer programs US Alliance and Team Advantage, so most of the big corporations have aligned themselves with one or the other. Of course, in the real world, half of all employed people work for small businesses.

Go Ask Alice

As the action begins, we meet Hack, a not-very-assertive, not-very-bright mail-room-clerk type in a Nike office in Melbourne. Two marketing sharpies, John Nike and John Nike, persuade him to sign a contract, but he neglects to read it or keep a copy for himself. By signing the contract, he agrees to commit 10 murders on behalf of the Johns as part of a radical marketing scheme they’ve cooked up to vitalize the sales of a line of extremely expensive shoes. Such a contract would be highly illegal in our world, but it’s enforceable in Barry’s universe, and Hack quickly realizes that he’s in big trouble. His girlfriend, an unemployed programmer who’s the real hacker in the family, suggests that Hack go to the police, which he does. The ensuing conversation should convince you, if it hasn’t become clear already, that this world is more than just a little twisted:

“So what’s your problem?” He flipped open a notebook.

Hack told him the whole story. When he was done, Pearson was silent for a long time. Finally Hack couldn’t take it anymore. “What do you think?”

Pearson pressed his fingers together. “Well, I appreciate you coming forward with this. You did the right thing. Now let me take you through your options.” He closed the notebook and put it to one side. “First, you can go ahead with this Nike contract. Shoot some people. In that case, what we’d do, if we were retained by the Government or one of the victims’ representatives, is attempt to apprehend you.”

“Yes.”

“And we would apprehend you, Hack. We have an eighty-six percent success rate. With someone like you, inexperienced, no backing, we’d have you within hours. So I strongly recommend you do not carry out this contract.”

“I know,” Hack said. “I should have read it, but ”

“Second, you can refuse to go through with it. That would expose you to whatever penalties are in that contract. And I’m sure I don’t need to tell you they could be harsh. Very harsh indeed.”

Hack nodded. He hoped Pearson wasn’t finished.

“Here’s your alternative.” Pearson leaned forward. “You subcontract the slayings to us. We fulfill your contract, at a very competitive rate. As you probably know from our advertisements, your identity is totally protected. If the Government comes after us, it’s not your problem.”

Alice is not only no longer in Kansas, but the white rabbit has been smoking something stronger than tumbleweed. From here, and this is only page 11, the plot really begins to get weird. The police subcontract out the killings to the National Rifle Association (NRA), and the marketing campaign is a huge success: kids flock to malls around the United States Federated Economic Bloc to spend 25 times the normal price for a pair of sneakers. John Nike catches hell from HQ for this campaign, but only because Hack subcontracted the murders to the police, a member of Team Advantage, rather than a member of Nike’s program, US Alliance. Of course, John didn’t know that the police had jobbed the hits out to the NRA, which is a US Alliance member, or he might have saved himself a smackdown.

WHEN SHE’S 10 FEET TALL!

Enter Jennifer Government.

In case you were wondering, government does exist – though without the power to collect taxes, it’s not the powerhouse it once was. Jennifer Government is an investigator with a past: before her current assignment, she worked in marketing, as proven by the barcode tattooed under her left eye. But now she’s passionate and dedicated to a different cause, with the goal of bringing the perpetrators of the mall killings to justice as soon as she can raise funds for the investigation.

Jennifer is competent and persuasive and ultimately convinces the parents of one of the victims to mortgage their home to fund the investigation and prosecution. From here, the plot spirals out of control, with the murders subsumed into a larger struggle between the competing frequent-buyer alliances. Barry is a good writer with a flair for humorous situations, and the plot threads intertwine hilariously, which results more in farce than satire. His writing is not up there with the great satirists of the last few generations, but it’s still quite respectable and very entertaining.

Conclusion

What’s most fascinating about this tale is Barry’s ability to tease out the assumptions underpinning our institutions and construct a world model in which they are negated. Rather than dismiss these negations as insane, though, he follows them through to their conclusions, producing a scary dystopia that effectively rebuts some current radical propositions for reengineering society. What would a world without taxes and government be like? What would replace government in providing basic stability and order? How would competition function if there were no limits on corporate behavior? Jennifer Government offers a reductio ad absurdum view.

In some ways, Barry’s world is all the more frightening because the line of descent from our current world is relatively clear. Stories like this help us recognize the good in the imperfect institutions and infrastructures that enable our daily lives.

Read the original …

(This article appeared originally in IEEE Security & Privacy in the September/October 2004 issue. This is substantially the same text, with some minor formatting changes to take advantage of the power of the online presentation plus a few minor wordsmithing tweaks. And the table has the original publication dates for the listed books, not the editions in print in 2004 when the article was published.)

Here’s a PDF (article-11-final) of the original article, courtesy of IEEE Security & Privacy.

Deus Est Machina

[originally published July 2004]

What happens if the artificial intelligence community, in its quest to build intelligent systems, succeeds too well and creates an AI whose intelligence exceeds the threshold marked out by our own? Up to now, it is humans who develop the software and hardware and who drive all progress in capability. After crossing the threshold, however, the AI itself will rapidly augment its own capabilities. What’s the intuition here? Although we use technology to help us conceptualize, design, and build today’s computers and software (and other technological artifacts such as airliners and skyscrapers), there’s no doubt that we remain in the driver’s seat. But imagine the software design process reaching a level of complexity at which human designers exert only executive oversight. Most practitioners can’t really see us getting to this point anytime soon, but remember that compilers astonished assembler programmers in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Deus Est Machina

If adequate intelligence for designing smarter software is close at hand, we might soon see a time when our intelligent software can improve itself. When we get to where each generation is designed by the previous one, we could reach a stage at which the process accelerates exponentially. At this point, Marvin Minsky (who wondered “if ordinary humans would be lucky enough to be kept as pets by these superior intelligences”), Ray Kurzweil (author of The Law of Accelerating Returns), Hans Moravec (author of Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind), and others theorize that our machines will permanently surpass our capabilities in the only domain left to us — the intellectual domain. This is called the singularity. Vinge is credited with coining the term for the phenomenon we’re speculating about here in his 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.

The digerati’s fevered speculations have started to infect some of the establishment’s more down-to-Earth leadership, resulting in alarums like Bill Joy’s essay in Wired entitled Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us (vol. 8.04, Apr. 2000), which expresses great dismay at the prospects for the human race’s survival of a singularity and some sidelong mentions by Tom Peters in his recent book Re-imagine!, which mentions Ray Kurzweil and the singularity. What is so compelling about such speculations that they can garner this kind of attention? In this installment of Biblio Tech, we’ll examine the singularity and some of the science fiction that has inspired (or been inspired by) it, focusing most of our attention on two relatively recent contributions to the discussion: The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, by Roger Williams, and Singularity Sky, by Charles Stross.

Influential works

Author Title Original Publication Date
Robert A. Heinlein The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress 1969
Thomas J. Ryan The Adolescence of P-1 1977
Vernor Vinge True Names 1981
Neal Stephenson The Diamond Age 1995
Roger Williams The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect 2002
Charles Stross Singularity Sky 2003

Singularity as Acceleration

Many singularity stories — and some research areas — focus on the creation of superintelligent AIs whose transcendent intellectual capabilities either render our own intellectual efforts irrelevant or, worse yet, enable them to exert physical control over our universe because they’ve mastered physical laws we’ve not yet grasped. Other stories and research examines the notion that the singularity is simply an extension of the accelerating technological change that has characterized human history; others view the singularity sweeping the human race into accelerated evolution as we alter our bodies and minds, with sometimes startling consequences.

Increasingly, singularity researchers talk about how other technologies beyond AI contribute to the shift. The most discussed is nanotechnology: the construction of microscopic mechanisms and automated factories could threaten the very existence of the human race. In The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson envisions a world in which competing groups’ microscopic agents clash both in the air and in our blood streams—one set to harm us and the other to defend us, both comprising a new generation of germs and antibodies with dramatically sophisticated modes of attack and defense.

Emergent

In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Robert Heinlein introduces an AI called Mike that emerges from the steady growth of complex systems: it wasn’t designed as, nor was it the consequence of, an intentional effort that exceeded expectations. Conversely, the AI in Thomas J. Ryan’s The Adolescence of P-1 emerges as the logical, if accidental, consequence of an experiment in machine learning that combined with early computer networking to produce a transcendent AI. Mike is humanity’s friend, whereas P-1 is more of a skeptic who practices a self-preservation ethic that is chilling in its brutal clarity. In True Names, Vernor Vinge posits two of the most popular modalities: an emergent (if slower-than-real-time) transcendent AI, and uploading, which is the transference of a person’s personality and memories from his or her meatspace body to a new cyberspace repository. In his Sprawl universe, William Gibson describes several AIs whose capabilities are handicapped by the Turing Police, a law-enforcement agency that exists to prevent AIs from achieving too much capability.

In The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, Roger Williams introduces a supercomputer created by a visionary who takes advantage of a newly discovered physical effect. However, this effect has wider implications than originally expected: it lets the transcendent supercomputer assume godlike powers, which precipitates the mother of all existential crises.

According to the author’s Web page, www.kuro5hin.org/prime-intellect/, The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect was originally written in 1994 but first “published” on a Web site in 2002. It isn’t available on paper (or as Williams says, “dead tree”) and probably never will be. Reading it is a challenge: it starts with a disturbing chapter intended to convey the exquisitely decadent consequences of the ultimate in boredom. Williams’ speculations into the dark games that involuntarily immortal and fabulously wealthy people might play to while away the time are vividly disturbing in a Tales from the Crypt sort of way, and for this reader, at least, distracted from the message.

Despite the story’s inauspicious beginning, its later stages are an engaging read. Williams evokes the essential contradictions in Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics by exploring the difference between physical and spiritual harm and distinguishing between short-, medium-, and long-term consequences. (The three laws of robotics are: one, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; two, a robot must obey orders given to it by humans, except where such orders would conflict with the first law; and three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second laws.)

The novel’s conflict and resolution hinge on a struggle between humans and the AI: the prize is the return of free will to the human race. Williams introduces a clever metric that measures the AI’s compliance with the three laws and uses that metric as a ticking bomb to keep the thrill alive. All in all, a well-written and very creative, if flawed, piece of work.

The Eschaton

Charles Stross is not a newcomer to SF writing; he’s already received two Hugo nominations, one for his novella Lobsters and another for Singularity Sky.

In Singularity Sky, we see a different view of post-singularity life, one in which the transcendent AI has become a nearly silent backdrop for the human race as people live their chaotic lives on a range of planets with several differing cultures, viewpoints, and prospects. As in Metamorphosis, the AI has assumed a godlike role in the universe, albeit one that is more obviously limited by the rules of physics. Awareness of its presence dates from a moment in the past when nine-tenths of the human race suddenly disappeared from Earth overnight. They weren’t killed; the AI, called Eschaton, scattered them to the habitable planets of stars all over the galaxy.

In an ironic symmetry with the Asimov laws of robotics, the humans in Singularity Sky toil under a set of laws that the AI imposed. These laws are designed to prevent humans from attempting any projects that would threaten the AI’s emergence. Time travel is possible according to the novel’s physics, so the Eschaton forbids its use and brutally punishes attempted transgressions.

Stross invents a world of spaceships equipped with phased-array emitters far superior to tacky old ray guns, and energy sources that include a carefully packaged black hole. All this gadgetry comes with physical constraints and limitations, and Stross dedicates plenty of time to elaborating their functions and performance. If you’re into hard-core SF, there’s plenty here (plus a love interest who’s also the toughest meanest hombre, er, woman on the ship, and an engineer who … but that would spoil it).

Are You Scared Yet?

On one hand, it’s hard to dispute the logic of the “gray goo” argument — namely, that progress in nanotechnology will enable a terrorist to create a lethal biological or nanorobotic agent that could threaten the very existence of life on Earth — that Bill Joy and others advance. The capability is plausibly achievable within the next 10 to 30 years. And if it’s possible or even easy to create such a thing, it’s easy to imagine that there is some lunatic somewhere out there with both the skill and the will to do it. On the other hand, we aren’t yet sure what form such a singularity threat would most likely take. Will it be a transcendent AI that can manipulate the human race? A pandemic virus? A nasty micromechanism? Are any limitations inherent in these potential mechanisms that would render our fears moot? One of the fears that the Manhattan Project scientists reportedly investigated was the possibility that the first nuclear bomb would ignite a chain reaction in the atmosphere. Testimony to the seriousness with which some very credible people take this, in a recent interview in The New York Times, Bill Joy expressed his intent to pursue the issue in the public policy arena. The speculations of SF writers are certainly frightening, but only the work of scientists and policy thinkers will help us figure out what we actually have to fear (besides fear itself).

Read the original …

(This article appeared originally in IEEE Security & Privacy in the July/August 2004 issue. This is substantially the same text, with some minor formatting changes to take advantage of the power of the online presentation plus a few minor wordsmithing tweaks. And the table has the original publication dates for the listed books, not the editions in print in 2004 when the article was published.)

Here’s a PDF (article-10-final) of the original article, courtesy of IEEE Security & Privacy.

Cult Classics

[originally published May 2004]

In this installment of Biblio Tech, we’ll look at some science fiction cult classics that challenge classification. Each is a perennial favorite with the SF community, and several have become fixtures in the computer science community.

Two of these works, Dark Star and Alien, are movies, while the other, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, began as a radio show whose universe and characters have taken on lives of their own. What turns these kinds of works into cult classics? Is it some particularly strong appeal to a preexisting community, or is it some intrinsic merit that creates the community?

In Space No One Can Hear You Scream

Alien is the movie that made Sigourney Weaver a star in 1979, a year that otherwise featured movies like Apocalypse Now, Kramer vs. Kramer, and The China Syndrome. The US withdrawal from Saigon had occurred four years earlier, and Hollywood movies were either very much about Vietnam or very much not about Vietnam. With Alien, we get the first sci-fi gothic horror movie with big-budget production values.

As the movie begins, an interstellar commercial ship is heading for home when it intercepts a distress signal. The crew finds the remains of an alien vessel when they finally arrive at the call’s source; after exploring the ship, they encounter eggs of a race of voracious and hostile creatures whose life cycle involves a hosted larval stage — hosted, as it turns out, in humans. The larva’s emergence from the chest of one of the crew members during a meal is the first shock of the movie. Before this moment, we have no indication that it’s going to be that kind of film.

The rest, as they say, is history. There’s a long and bloody struggle between the alien and the humans on the ship, conducted in dark passageways throughout the ship that provide ample opportunities for heart-pounding fright sequences as the creature pops up unexpectedly. Weaver triumphs at long last, and a film franchise that has so far produced three successful sequels is born. My favorite scene in the entire series comes at the end of the first sequel, Aliens, with a furious cat fight between a mechanically enhanced Weaver and the surviving queen alien, a scene that has an echo in the final scenes of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but that’s another story.

The Spaced-out Spaceship

Dark Star is an obscure sci-fi flick that appeared in 1974. It features a four-man crew (well, four men, one frozen corpse that is still capable of metaphysical debate, an intelligent computer with a verging-on-sultry female voice, and several smart bombs) on a goofy long-term mission aboard the eponymous starship. The crew’s job is to blow up planets that somehow hinder human expansion in space, but despite the many scenes involving target selection, the planet-busting rationale is never quite clear. We hear about unstable planets that might collide with stars and about the probability of intelligent life on other planets (which always seems to merit extermination), but this reasoning is just intended as background noise. Somewhere along the way, the Dark Star picks up an alien, portrayed by a translucent orange beach ball atop a pair of cheap plastic claws. The alien is mute but clearly intelligent, readily understanding the human crew’s complex statements. When presented with a decision, it taps its claws on the floor impatiently.

Alien and Dark Star differ in look and feel, but they maintain their hold on their cult followers. Both give screenwriting credits to Dan O’Bannon, now best known in the film industry for his expertise in horror films. Viewers have noted several parallels between the two movies that we can probably credit to O’Bannon’s role as writer for both movies. Both feature a small crew on an extended trip and an alien on board that ends up in a-hunted-becomes-the hunter role reversal in the ship’s dark corridors. So what if one is a comedy and the other is gothic horror?

The most memorable scene in Dark Star is the debate between crew member Doolittle and Bomb #20, which can’t detach from the Dark Star bomb bay and is armed and counting down to its detonation. The crew is frantically trying to persuade the bomb to obey their orders but to no avail. Operating on the advice of Commander Powell’s frozen corpse, Doolittle successfully persuades the bomb to question itself.

DOOLITTLE: Now, bomb, consider this next question, very carefully. What is your one purpose in life?
BOMB #20: To explode, of course.
DOOLITTLE: And you can only do it once, right?
BOMB #20: That is correct.
DOOLITTLE: And you wouldn’t want to explode on the basis of false data, would you?
BOMB #20: Of course not.
DOOLITTLE: Well then, you’ve already admitted that you have no real proof of the existence of the outside universe.
BOMB #20: Yes, well…
DOOLITTLE: So you have no absolute proof that Sergeant Pinback ordered you to detonate.
BOMB #20: I recall distinctly the detonation order. My memory is good on matters like these.
DOOLITTLE: Yes, of course you remember it, but what you are remembering is merely a series of electrical impulses which you now realize have no necessary connection with outside reality.
BOMB #20: True, but since this is so, I have no proof that you are really telling me all this.
DOOLITTLE: That’s all beside the point. The concepts are valid, wherever they originate.
BOMB #20: Hmmm…
DOOLITTLE: So if you detonate in…
BOMB #20: … nine seconds…
DOOLITTLE: … you may be doing so on the basis of false data.
BOMB #20: I have no proof that it was false data.
DOOLITTLE: You have no proof that it was correct data. [There is a long pause.]
BOMB #20: I must think on this further. [The bomb raises itself back into the ship; Doolittle practically collapses with relief.]

Despite the absurdity of both the situation and the dialogue, we’re forced to think about the amount of intelligence to add to emerging “smart” devices. Fortunately, we’re a long way from building bombs that have the ability to debate philosophical conundrums. Let’s hope that the Law of Unintended Consequences is carefully considered if and when we do have such a capability.

DON’T PANIC!

A year before Alien, Douglas Adams created a remarkably eccentric radio show called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, released as a novel in 1980. Because it has robots and spaceships, it must be SF, but it’s also absurd British comedy. As the novel begins, a Vogon construction fleet destroys Earth to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Unknown to the bypass’s planners, though, Earth is actually the ultimate in supercomputers; it was constructed to answer the question of “life, the universe, and everything” originally posed 17 million years earlier by a race of superintelligent hyperdimensional beings whose manifestation on Earth is as white lab mice. The original computer built to solve this problem was called Deep Thought, a name that shaped generations of IBM chess-playing and other supercomputers, but after seven and a half million years of work, it delivered the Delphic answer 42. Because they didn’t understand the answer, the sponsors, our friends the white mice, realized that they hadn’t posed the question very well, so they asked Deep Thought to design a new computer that could calculate the answer. If your computer isn’t powerful enough to solve the problem, ask it to design one that is powerful enough. Unfortunately, the Vogon construction fleet destroyed Earth five minutes before it was due to complete its 10-million-year-long calculation.

With this absurd premise at its core, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy conducts a madcap tour of the universe. In the story, an accidental refugee named Arthur Dent and his friend Ford Prefect drift from one calamity to another, ultimately meeting up with Prefect’s old friend Zaphod Beeblebrox, the President of the Galaxy, and a perpetually depressed android named Marvin. What’s the connection between the story and the title of the book? Well, as it happens, Ford Prefect is a traveling researcher for a reference work called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and his specific assignment when the action begins is to conduct research for an update to the entry on Earth. Lest you be overcome, the entries on Earth in the Guide are never more than one or two words.

The surprising success of Hitchhiker’s Guide led to four sequels, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe; Life, the Universe, and Everything; So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish; and Mostly Harmless. The books spawned a BBC-produced radio series, a TV show, and according to the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com), a new movie due to begin filming shortly.

Conclusion

All three of these works feel remarkably random, so what unifies them? In each case, the characters are engaged in some relatively innocuous activities when events overtake them. None of the characters is particularly appealing; you never end up caring very much about what happens to them. So why have these books attained enduring popularity, particularly with the technical community? Dark Star and Hitchhikers Guide were both low-budget surprises, and Alien clearly started out on the B track. Did these movies escape the commercial homogenization of focus groups and industrial psychologists and hence preserve a quirky originality? How do creations, whether group products like movies or individual ones like books manage to capture the imaginations of large numbers of people? What distinguishes the taste of distinct communities of people, such as engineers and scientists, from that of the broader public? Is there something significant in the success of a book or a movie, or is it just random chance or mass hysteria, as Adams implies in Hitchhikers Guide?

Influential works

Apocalypse Now

Author Title Year of Original Publication
John Carpenter Dark Star 1974
Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 1978
Ridley Scott Alien 1979
Francis Ford Coppola 1979
Robert Benton Kramer Versus Kramer 1979
James Bridges The China Syndrome 1979
Douglas Adams The Restaurant at the End of the Universe 1980
Douglas Adams Life, The Universe, and Everything 1982
Douglas Adams So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish 1984
James Cameron Aliens 1986
Douglas Adams Mostly Harmless 1992
J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2007

Read the original …

(This article appeared originally in IEEE Security & Privacy in the May/June 2004 issue. This is substantially the same text, with some minor formatting changes to take advantage of the power of the online presentation plus a few minor wordsmithing tweaks.)

Here’s a PDF (article-09-final) of the original article, courtesy of IEEE Security & Privacy.