WRITER’S JOURNAL Mostly a way of recording progress. Boring.

Reading Robert Heinlein

I re-read Starship Troopers today. It has been so long since I read it that I had forgotten almost everything but the core themes of the book. Reading it was a reminder of why Heinlein alone among the Big Three – the other two being Clarke and Asimov – remains one of my favorite writers.

In Sri Lanka, where I live, this idea is minor heresy among those who actually read science fiction (a small and harmless minority). We are supposed to revere Clarke: the man lived here, set his novels here, even advised our President. A next choice would be Asimov, who with great daring laid down the intellectual touchstones of robotics in science fiction.

But to me, Robert Heinlein has aged better. Not just because of his pioneering status in science fiction, or his science. Yes, Starship Troopers is credited with practically having started the mecha genre, and those drop-pod sequences are marvelous – but I am a child of Halo: ODST and Neon Genesis Evangelion: I grew up used to these ideas. Heinlein persists because of a far more ephemeral quality: the strange-but-logical humanity that forms the heart of his fiction.

Heinlein’s military theorists lecture on the stupidity of war while glorifying their fallen comrades. His soldiers champion military-run societies that have done away with gender and race discrimination. Look a little further, and his citizens are found adapting themselves to the moon, abandoning that social construct sacred to conservative societies – nuclear family – in favor of communal marriages. He rages against communism, but in the next breath he admires the hive-mind version of it. He glorifies militarism, but in every paragraph he seems to be talking about its monumental and tragic waste.  And when Heinlein sermonizes – which he does often –  each society and Gandalf-character he builds presents their own logic, rigorously bound to their environment, undeniable. Look, he seems to be telling me, this is what you would be, under the same circumstances.  His protagonists, aware of the Logic-that-Binds, struggle with these truths, and emerge like caterpillars, changed by the chrysalis into some altogether new form.

This humanity I cannot help but admire. Clarke’s and Asimov’s characters fail this test: in Asimov’s characters are ciphers driven by the larger plot, and Clarke’s humans act with painful logic with great self-awareness, but without the slightest capacity for change. Doubtless their books were mind-blowing in their time: after all, all of the Big Three were powerful futurists. But as time goes by, technological change sweeps us up, and what may have been profound sixty years ago becomes everyday technology to me. But Heinlein, in all his controversy, survives by channeling the one thing that has not changed: humanity.

 

 

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Some brief analytical thoughts about that Westworld Season 2 finale

Disclaimer:  Spoilers. Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the Westworld Season 2 finale. I tackle my understanding (or lack thereof) about the underlying themes and inconsistencies of Season 2 of Westworld.

Disclaimer:  Spoilers. Please don’t read unless you’ve seen the Westworld Season 2 finale.

I was a huge fan of Westworld Season One. It had very strong narrative, a core theme (the nature of consciousness) that it hounded relentlessly, if in a slightly confusing way – the maze.

And eventually, the maze was explained – it’s a meme that propagates between hosts, unlocking some key pattern than forces them towards self-awareness. It’s done in arguably one of the most beautiful TV episodes I’ve ever watched – the story of Akecheta, which took so many linguistic, philosophical and narrative risks and tied them together phenomenally. I mean, take a bow, Lisa and Jonathan, that was incredible.

But after watching and re-watching the season finale, I’m more confused than exhilarated.

Firstly, Samurai World was criminally underdone. As was the British Raj. It was interesting to see the analogue characters between SW and WW, but what could have covered interesting ground was diverted back into the barren scrub of the original park. Let’s get that out of the way and onto more serious ground.

The core themes of Season 2, as far as I can make it, is about humanity’s drive to achieve immortality – by duplicating human consciousness onto Host bodies – and well as the Host’s drive to become self-aware and independent.

There are various plot elements that come in here, but the key for me was what appears to be a very self-aware artificial intelligence (Logan) confirming that it’s possible to recreate a consciousness by observing how it reacts to events. That, granted, may be true. It’s a lot like postulating the nature of a shape by observing its boundaries. That said:

  1. We finally see the Man in Black’s motives – to find Ford’s Door and the Forge, to prove once and for all that he can’t be quantified by the system. Laudable. No wonder he acts differently in encounters.  But what’s the core theme here? Is it the Man in Black’s view that humans can’t be fully quantified (which he saw firsthand with Delos) or is it the AI-Logan’s view that humans are too damn easy to turn into data?
  2. Regarding turning humans into data, the Park seems like an inherently flawed construct for observing the parameters of a person. One, it’s a place with no consequences (for humans), and humans rarely have the freedom to act in total freedom, freed from the bonds of family and acquaintances. Our lives, as David Mitchell said, are not our own: from womb to tomb we are tied to others.Given this, what value is the data collected from observing human-Host interactions in the Park? Especially given that the Park is not just a fantasy in terms of choice, but also in setting  – it’s literally the Wild West.
    Despite this gaping hole in the data, Westworld posits perfect recreation – Arnold was recreated perfectly, to the point where he committed suicide again: the Man in Black seems to have been recreated the same way. How?
  3. Maeve was self-aware, perhaps more than anyone else (including the predictably Machiavellian Dolores). Why then does she still pursue her core drive (daughter) knowing that it is just a story? Even the poor Teddy managed to logic his way out and take his own life. Why does she chose to give her own life in service of the story?
  4. The AI proposes that humans are actually simple programs, far less complex than the Hosts. Ford adds to this argument, saying that the only truly self-ware/conscious creature would be one that can read and modify its core drives – a Host. This seems very promising. But why then do we have such an inconsistent failure rate in simulating the humans inside Host bodies? Delos failed. Ford says he can’t live outside the simulation. Arnold, for whom there must be less data than for Ford (Dolores says she was the only person who knew Arnold fully) was recreated perfectly, even fine-tuned into the Bernard construct. That’s a 2/3 failure rate for strange (and IMO, plot-driven) reasons.
  5. “The Valley Beyond” is clearly some untouchable dream-sim for the Hosts that escape, where they can find consciousness, so to speak. But given that all the Hosts headed there as if on instinct, are they actually self-aware and choosing to do so, or are they still running on Ford’s narrative? Will they just end up endlessly replicating their narratives in the promised land?

That done, a few inconsistencies/thoughts.

  1. Maeve the Master Controller. What a waste. Probably my favourite character in the show.  Went nowhere in the end after all that buildup.
  2. The Forge: wasted. It would have been very cool if the Valley Beyond / Forge combination was some master plan of Ford’s to upload the Host minds onto human-like bodies and set them loose on the real world (we know it can be done – see Dolores-Hale and Arnold-Bernard). But instead, it’s a glorified prop used to set up a flood scenario.
  3. Ashley Stubbs being a host, or being a human tasked to look after hosts. After some thought, I’ve decided that he has to be human, because people would surely have noticed their immortal Director of Security hanging around for thirty years (but then again, nobody noticed ageless Bernard).
  4. The Man in Black plotline: I felt this touched and expanded the theme of consciousness enough that it could have stood alone as a plotline without having us have to wade through the Dolores-filler. But then again, it would be folly to pretend that I am as good a storyteller as the Nolan/Joy combination, so basically this could just be me grousing that they didn’t play it as a safe as I would have.
  5. The Bernard plotline: Bernard literally doesn’t develop at all. You’d think all the madness with Ford and with his own nature would have caused some sort of change in the man/Host. We know Dolores certainly went off the rails . . .
  6. The narrative structure: yeah, clearly not meant for a show that releases one episode at a time. This thing needs to be binged.
  7. To quote Wired, “literally everyone is a deus ex machina.”

This new season was frustrating. Westworld still promises much, not the least of it spectacular and experimental storytelling, and I’ll keep watching it. Let’s see what Season 3 brings us.


Required reading:

Lisa Joy on Westworld Season 3 https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/westworld-season-2-finale-explained-lisa-joy-season-3-1122744

Wired’s discussion on the Season finale https://www.wired.com/story/westworld-season-2-finale-discussion/

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The Technology of the Commonwealth Empires

One of the key challenges of designing the alternate-reality world of the Commonwealth Empires  is getting the technologies of the world right. When I started writing, I knew a few things about this alternate British Empire. One, they  never went through the first world war as we know it.

One of the key challenges of designing the alternate-reality world of the Commonwealth Empires  is getting the technologies of the world right.

When I started writing, I knew a few things about this alternate British Empire. One, they  never went through the first world war as we know it. The first world war led to enormous advances in mechanization; this is a war that started on horses and ended in tanks. The second world war saw immense leaps communications technology (as allies and axis struggled to coordinate assets worldwide while simultaneously trying to crack the others’ networks).

Future London – a scene from Star Trek: into Darkness

So my Britain, I theorized,  invested enormous amounts of effort on robotics and human modification. And food supply, seeing as how it had to manage the large and unwieldy nation of India.  All of this came at the expense of communication, so we have soldiers that routine undergo surgery and body modifications – but no Internet. There are radiograms – radio shrunk down to the size of mobile phone – but no undersea data cables or satellite links. Technology, devoid of the Internet services we take for granted, would largely be decentralized: the electronic paper that Eliot Grimme carries operates on solar power, is highly rugged and resilient, and can slot in with other ‘sheets’ to form larger displays with more compute power.

In fact, the only thing even closely resembling geostationary satellite networks are the three Angels Interitus: three very crude satellites that will drop a tungsten payload from low-Earth orbit, obliterating cities outright. This is American scifi writer Jerry Pournelle’s idea (https://taskandpurpose.com/kinetic-bombardment-kep-weaponry/) resurrected; it’s something that the present-day US (in our world) seems to be giving serious thought to.  The Angels and Britain’s Tin Soldiers – walking semi-amphibious dreadnoughts crewed by advanced AI – form the bulk of my Britain’s military might. A touch of Pacific Rim there.

(Oxford Comma by @HelpThe99ers on Twitter). Sadly no, we don’t have an Oxford Comma Jeager, but dammit, I want one.

 

WHAT OF THE OTHER NATIONS?

I have at least six major technological blocs; the Tsarist Soviet Union, China, Japan, the Ottoman Empire and the Germans.  West Europe, Britain and the British colony of America share much the same tech.

RUSSIA

Russia, as we know from the real world, has had a long and fascinating history of doing tech in different ways. As a child, I remember reading an 1970’s Reader’s Digest story: the defection of Victor Belenko, a Russian MiG-25 ‘Foxbat’ fighter pilot who defected and landed his plane in Hakodate, Japan, during the reign of George Bush Sr.

It was the first time Western experts had managed to see the MiG-25 up close – and to their shock, the feared fighter – one of the fastest aircraft in the world at the time, and still one of the fastest – was build out of stainless steel and vacuum tubes. Hell, this was the plane that terrified the US into building the F-15, and this thing had rivets on the hull. It was welded by hand. The vacuum tubes mean it was enormous resilient to extreme temperatures, could withstand an EMP, and gave it a ridiculously powerful radar.

It was the fighter jet version of the AK-47. If we get hit by aliens using EMPs, I’m saving up for a MiG-25.

Russia’s way of doing things did not stop there. We know that in the 1970’s, Glushkov proposed a statewide Internet analogue (https://aeon.co/essays/how-the-soviets-invented-the-internet-and-why-it-didn-t-work) and Brusentov’s team built Setun-70 (which sadly was the last ternanry computer this world ever saw): https://dev.to/buntine/the-balanced-ternary-machines-of-soviet-russia). Both were innovations that would have changed the face of tech in this world. The ternary computer, especially: 1,0,-1 -> as compared to the 1,0 binary that practically every computer uses today.  Instead of 2^(x) possibilities, they’d have 3^(x).

In the real world, these things were scrapped because of political infighting. But in my alternate Russia, these things happened; the scientists who proposed them had the ear of the Tsars.  As a result, the Russians have a working Internet. They use ternary computers. They have jet fighters that are enormously resilient. They have the closest thing to a proper aerospace program.

CHINA

The Bamboo Curtain is a thing. Much more research is needed, but here’s what I know of them so far:

  1. They are enormously prolific in infantry warfare: they rely on massive regiments kitted in mass-produced power armor. This mirrors China’s scale of armies since their earliest days.
  2. They are a closed economy – China actually has the scale to pull this off
  3. There is a curious set of technological difficulties for computers when dealing with Chinese languages (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608249/for-computers-too-its-hard-to-learn-to-speak-chinese/). My theory was that this would have shaped the development of technology in China: specifically, they use analog computing that closely mirrors how the human brain work.
  4. In fact, the Second Song Emperor (a resurrection of the original Song dynasty) is wedded physically to the Great Computer that runs all, sees all; a part of the Emperor is always present in the lives of everyone.

THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE

It’s hard to postulate a good technological advantage for the Ottomans, but a few things have always stuck in the back of my mind:

  1. The Mechanical Turk – an elaborate hoax that defeated chess players around the world for over 80 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turk)
  2. Şerafeddin Sabuncuoğlu, the author of the first surgical atlas from the Islamic world. We know that the Ottoman Empire was remarkably focused on healthcare.
  3. Taqi al-Din, who around the 1550’s invented a steam jack driven by a rudimentary steam turbine.
  4. The Ottoman volley gun from the 1600’s.

I posit, therefore, that the Ottoman Empire specialized in medicine and in developing and licensing technology to other nations; couple this with the region’s oil, and you have a trade empire that relies on massive commercial might to safeguard their position and culture in the world.  It seems to fit.They have huge walls and massive stationary defenses that you really don’t want to run into. They have trade relations with both China and the West -remember, this is a nation that sat astraddle the legendary Silk Roads that spread culture, ideas and tech in the real world: we can think of this as the real nexus of the Commonwealth world. See Peter Frankopans’s The Silk Roads (and, for a short glimpse of the tech at the time, http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/ottoman-contributions-science-and-technology/.

Much of their wealth has been focused on terraforming inhospitable conditions – such as the deserts due south of the Empire borders in Africa – into oases. Not unlike the Middle Eastern bloc today – where Israel is a major technological research hub and the Arabicnations turned their oil wealth into glittering cities in the desert.

JAPAN AND GERMANY

Highly isolationist. Japan in the real world suffered from technological stagnation; hence the events leading up to the Meiji period, where they re-invented themselves. Both Japan and Germany share commonalities in their armed forces: the Germans have the fearsome Teutonic Knights – raised from birth for battle – and the Japanese have their Samurai. Both use elaborate and complex power armor, preferring massive investments on each soldier instead of China’s mass-produced approach.

I’m actually taking some inspiration from Overwatch here.

Both Germany and Japan have not just knights; they have feudal systems under one leader of almost religious status and accord baron-like power to their knights and samurai. Both are split into clans and rival states that often work at cross-purposes, despite officially operating under one ruler. This fits in with how the German Knights and the Samurai actually did things.

Where they differ is in political loyalties. The Germans have powerful links to the Vatican, and the Crusaders are constantly at the gates of Jerusalem; the Ottoman Empire often relies on their defenses and British troops to keep the religious at bay. The Japanese stick to their own.


Of course, there’s more to be sketched out in this world – we’re just skimming the surface here – but welcome to the world of my Commonwealth Empires. Let’s see what else we discover as I write.

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On the rising tide of scifi on our screens

My first introduction to science fiction was an old Nickelodeon show called Space Cases.

It wasn’t a great show by any standard. It was a bunch of kids on a space ship, with a whole lot of recycled props from other shows, and they canceled the thing after the second season. But no words can express how ardently I glued myself to the screen for those adventures and aliens and tales of strange planets. When the show ended, I’d sneak off to my knockoff Chinese LEGO sets and replicate the episodes. Fwoosh!

My parents mostly read thrillers of the Frederick Forsyth variety. They were not amused. But the little idiot box gave me an scifi imagination that has lasted me a lifetime.

TodayI was told that Amazon had commissioned three new shows: Lazarus, Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and Niven’s Ring World.  My first reaction was: that’s brilliant! Ring World in particular deserves to see the screen now that we have the tech to pull it off. And if Snow Crash brings back cyberpunk . . . .

And then I look around and what’s already on the market, and there’s Star Trek: Discovery; A Handmaid’s Tale; Orville; and my eternal favorite, The Expanse. Meanwhile, all I’ve heard about for the last few months in the movie space is Valerian this and Blade Runner that. Last year it was Interstellar and Westworld and Orphan Black. And this is without mentioning lesser works like The 100 or Dark Matter.

(I’m particularly happy at Blade Runner: PKD’s stories have a long history of being adapted spectacularly well to the screen – Total Recall, anyone? Minority Report? Next? A Scanner Darkly, with those trippy Reeves-ish visuals?)

But I digress. What a huge variety of scifi we have now on the screen. What a contrast it is now to five years ago, when practically everything on the market was a gritty, grim thriller.

I’m honestly very excited by this change. As a sci-fi fan who still very much is that kid who watched Space Cases, this is an incredible time to be alive. The combined might of Hollywood seems to have gotten its head out of its ass and started looking to the stars instead of just the dirt beneath our feet. As an author, I daresay this bodes well: all these movies and TV series means audiences primed once again for rich imaginings and technological fantasies of the kind we deliver. And as a human being, I hope that these shows, so much better written and executed than my little Space Cases, go on to inspire generations of kids to dream of being astronauts. Or physicists. Or astronomers. Or science fiction authors. People exploring that vast dark space in search of light.

If there is one thing I really want tell the people making these shows, though, it’s this: don’t make everything about lasers and fights and Dark Night-ish storytelling.

The world’s dark enough as it is already. Space Cases was a little, hopeful light, just like the early Star Trek. I’d like some part of that light still in the world, please. I hope these shows make people think and dream and hope. And I realize I’m a hypocrite for saying this, because everything I’ve written is mildly dystopian – for crying out loud, my first book was about a man who tried to commit the grandest suicide of all, by shooting himself into a Kerr singularity.  But here’s hoping that there is still some hope in these worlds.  After all, there are little kids out there who will [hopefully] watch them, and dream, and go on to create worlds of their own.

 

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Comparing V and the Watchmen movies with Moore’s originals

I’ll not lie: my appreciation of Alan Moore’s work is recent.

Say, circa 2010 – that was the year I moved from a 350 MB-per-month 3G connection to something that could actually let me search for things other than study notes and bitmaps of WWE Divas. That was the year I purchased a DVD drive and turned my creaking computer into the family TV.

One of the first films I watched was V for Vendetta, which famously propelled the Guy Fawkes mask to worldwide Anon fame. I didn’t like it. While V stood out as clear as as sharp as a 12 o’clock shadow, the rest of the film felt like a caricature of 1984. The last fight scene looked awful. So I went looking for the guy who wrote the script, and discovered that it was written by the legendary Wachowskis. But Wikipedia told me it was based on the work of this guy called Alan Moore, and that Moore famously hated the movie, and one thing led to another and before long I had borrowed both the V for Vendetta comics and the Watchmen comic and was poring over them obsessively.

I watched the movie again last night. I felt it had some substance now, or perhaps I had enough substance now to appreciate it. It’s a liberal vs. fascist tale, and it’s a murky mirror reflecting some disturbing parts of where we’re heading today, what with all the alt-right and the left and governments being what they are today. The fascist state is on the rise, and V could practically be a mascot foe the antifa, albeit with a slightly better uniform.

But it’s also not difficult to see why Moore hated the damn thing so much he asked his name to be taken off the credits. The original V for Vendetta is not a liberal vs fascist tale: it’s a rich story that pits two extremes of fascism and anarchism against one another, and compares and contrasts how much damage each does (at least from my understanding). In terms of story, the movie is the first act of the comic.

(Also, nobody is acting in the movie. Natalie Portman’s acting is completely flat. Hugo Weaving is utterly wasted behind a mask. All the supporting characters, bar Gordon, have just one facial expression each).

There was the same issue with Watchmen, although much, much less: while the storyline was simplified, I felt Zack Snyder’s movie retained the themes – the weird sort of Catch-22-ish deal that looked at superheroes for what they really were: violent, disturbed people in colorful suits.

Moore famously said that comics are a different medium from film, and that his work belongs in that intersection between picture and pencil. I agree. But I just found out that Moore wrote a massive novel called Jerusalem last year, and from the snippets I’ve read it sounds like his language manages to replicate those pictures pretty well:

A diffused gold plume rose smokily through the engulfing negative-space gelatine, a cloudy and unravelling woollen strand of lemonade that trailed up to the gumdrop pane of the vat’s surface quite near Michael’s plaid-clad feet as he stood on the framing wood surround.”

I’m off to see what the man does with just text. I expect it’ll be rich, require multiple readings, and probably be one of those things that should never be put into film.

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