18 July 2009

Quibbles and Quandary, Science in Science Fiction Part 1

To those wondering about my 'normal' output: I don't really have 'normal' output.  My views on terrorism, organized crime, politics, the nature of society and the problems we currently have are stated throughout my works.  I will continue with them, but others are doing a far better job trying to keep up with the overwhelming insanity.  At home I am concentrating on the basics of emergency preparedness and what all this lovely government spending will do once it hits the markets in full force, social security goes insolvent and has to draw heavily off of normal tax receipts, and the need to try and either print money or spiral into a deflationary period... and my guess is the former as it is the preferred form of seppuku for those in power in modern political realms. 

Basically, I would be repeating my previous views or not covering ongoing events as well as others.

I've repeated myself sufficiently for my own tastes.

I've taken a very much longer post I've been putting together and breaking it up into a multi-part post to go over some of the things I've noted in SF.  Thus much of the verbiage is from a long post (the working title was - The rules in SF what to break and what not to), not a multi-part post.  And as my math is rarely all that good there will probably be some changes/redactions/revisions/etc. as time goes on... if I get the time to do them.  I will stick mostly to the visual media SF but print SF also comes into play due to my interests.

Read at your own risk.


Yesterday was the last day for complaints.


After watching and reading science fiction for decades, I took my hand at writing some for personal pleasure, only.  Being a long-time reader and viewer I also became a critic: I cited the unrealistic plots, premises and extrapolations that many shows and stories in printed from had.  Thus, when writing, I looked to change what I wrote to adhere to those conventions.  They are few, actually, but have deep ramifications.

Continuity is your friend not your enemy

This first is pretty general and not limited to SF, but has a particular impact in SF worlds that are pre-existing.  Writers of 'serials', or serial pieces presented sequentially in a common storyline or given universe, require continuity so that present actions derive from past ones in an explainable manner.  This is, strangely, the Soap Opera Prime Directive and is utilized in most serial universes: Dr. Who and Babylon-5 in video/film, and such things as all of Larry Niven's Known Space works, Fred Saberhagen's massive universe stretching from his Empire of the East through the Swords novels and to the Masks of the Gods works, and the majority of H. Beam Piper's Federation/Empire works, to name but a very few that do this.

'Collective' universes without continuity do not fare as well over time, unless they are entertaining for other reasons: Star Trek, X-Files, and all 'episodic' television shows; and things like Thieve's World and the 1632 series the latter of which has good internal coordination on themes and characters while the former broke the coherent model in the first story collection.  In episodic television you can get 're-visits' to previous characters/situations/themes, but they do not form an inter-connected whole universe.  Thus to get good causal relationships of events, as in the 1632 series, requires cooperation and understanding by the authors involved to NOT break with the known pattern of events and understandings.  In this format the individual stories/episodes can be very and even extremely compelling, but the overall continuity requires an extremely firm hand on sticking to a timeline to get internal coherence of the universe involved.

As I enjoy stories that take place in coherent universes (even if the characters, situations, plots, and such are incoherent as in some of Michael Moorcock's works) writing a story in a pre-existing universe that is episodic or has multiple, non-concurring stories, then requires editing out the prior history of that universe to gain a continuity.  Thus in writing a Trek story, I had to take out a meat cleaver as there are non-concurring stories, histories, events and even some outlooks that just don't 'fit' with each other.  To keep most of the stories requires throwing out a minority of them, and that is something every writer for Trek has done... which is why it is incoherent as the different visions, even in The Original Series (ST:TOS), are not concurring.  Thus no one fully agrees with any story written and larger format, such as films, can actually make things worse.


Science Fiction requires science

Science is a body of work that is achieved by observation, examining the results, quantifying them, and then doing analysis to ask: what makes this work the way it does?  Trial and error results, theories get tossed out with a shred of new evidence that disproves them, and theoretical frameworks are rebuilt using new understanding to see how new observations fit in with previous ones and these new theories have conclusions that can be tested and the hypothesis will either validated or invalidated.  You can have an absolutely great idea that, in its fundamentals, is correct, but due to lack of observations or ability to do the mathematics involved, is discounted.  You may be vindicated years or decades after your death, but that doesn't make your original observations (or lack thereof) more compelling.

Technology is the handmaiden of science: you can't build something unless you know what it is you want to make.  Science requires observations that require new devices to be made along known principles to test new hypotheses.  Thus scientists work with engineers on the art of the possible.

That is on the hard science side.

It is normally abused pretty well for television/movies/radio programs as the time to actually explain where a given piece of technology comes from (what, really, is a phaser?  or a blaster?) just isn't available: it is a flashy weapon designed for the media involved.  If you read David Drake's Hammer's Slammers works you get some very good looks at what a realistic form of weapon is possible from the knowns of physics that is both flashy and deadly.  Some are within the realm of the near-possible (lasers for example at large scales) others, like generating up enough energy to form a thin disk of copper into a directable plasma is a bit less certain (we can do that with explosives but not on a repeatable electronic device and standard electromagnetic means, but that, too, is engineering).

Equipment, in general, has been the lagging point of future stories as they depend upon current known and easily extrapolated systems.  The main computer of a starship in Star Trek has morphed from a mainframe to a distributed system with centralized storage and processing for large problems.  For these to be in a continuity, the past needs to lead to these forms of technology: thus there must have been some previous problems or events that limit the capacity of that future compared to current abilities.  Much of the early works of SF have this problem, where we have advanced in our abilities in physics but data processing lags badly.  Normally I put this under the 'explosive growth of expanded basic technology' phenomena, where a few basic understandings (that we currently don't have) make new capability in non-data areas as exciting and cost effective as data processing, which then lags.  That  is a backwards rationalization, of course, but serves as a good touchstone to put ideas we now have on savings via data processing into a different venue.  In naval warfare we have seen this in our own time as ships that are older are either retrofitted to have new capabilities (but on an older platform) or new built ships embody new technology that, in its time, becomes less useful compared to new technology.  Destroyers have gone from escort vessels and anti-air fire platforms, and submarine hunting with a relatively large crew, to now doing all of that, coordinating airspace and defenses of multiple vessels and packing the firepower of a WWII Battleship.  While having crew size reduced even as ship mass increases as technology makes the need for personnel less by leveraging automation in the place of manual work.

Sometimes, as in the Terminator series, technology is way advanced for the state of the art and not a direct derivative of existing technology.  That said the figure of Miles Bennett Dyson proves critical.  I don't discuss that in my cross-over story, but his critical role is demonstrated by what happens when he DOES get foreknowledge of what his work will come to (even if he doesn't know it): it doesn't help and actually hinders his progress.  In the Terminator films the actual creation of the machine intelligence gets pushed back: after the first film and then the second, events recede as intervention via time travel happens.  I'll leave time travel aside, for the moment, but this effect where seeing how your ideas result in an end technology actually inhibiting you because you want to DUPLICATE and not CREATE the technology is a fascinating one. 

In a timeline without time travel, Dyson creates the basic technology for intelligent machines quickly, but with the technology in hand he stumbles as he is trying to re-create work from an unknown source.  Far from making the machines more possible, that knowledge retards their creation by Dyson.  Soon that is pushed off even further away from Dyson, after his death, and the question of normal technological advancement going in a different direction is one that cannot be ignored: if the advanced technology can't be figure out quickly, then research re-orients on known pathways that are fruitful.  That is part of my quibble with UFO conspiracy theories that we have such lovely access to 'advanced technology': if we could understand it, then we would be using it, and if we can't then we have to develop the underpinnings for it so we can understand it... which makes having the technology, itself, problematical as we are inventing it. If there really IS a conspiracy, then PUSHING for such technology may actually SLOW its advance as you have a preconceived notion of it based on an artifact and what it does, now what the underlying science IS.  Really, how long did mankind spend trying to invent the ornithopter when known airfoils for gliding have been made since the time of Ancient Egypt, as seen by children's toys left in tombs?  The practical hang-glider was possible centuries before it was invented, and yet by trying to fly like birds or insects, no one thought of doing that as a means of flying.


Thus ends part 1.

Dealing with the future as seen in the past and how it has actually come about makes examining stories very interesting.  The stories are not only cultural artifacts, but an insight into how we, as a society, viewed science, technology and cultural change.

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