HOW MANY WORLDS DO WE NEED?

ManyWorlds.jpg

A few months ago UK astronomers published some findings that might be evidence of universes parallel to our own. You can read an overview here. It raises a subject much beloved by both physicists and science fiction writers.

Maybe I should have asked, “How many worlds do we need to explain the state of the universe?” Maybe more than we could ever count.

Quantum theory is the science of trying to understand the behaviour of the very smallest particles and energies that make up everything we see and touch. At that level, things get really weird—often contrary to what we’d expect from our observation of the larger world around us. One of the key tenets of quantum theory (according to the widely held Copenhagen interpretation) is that particles exist in a state of probability. For example, an individual electron is located within a kind of cloud of possible locations until we somehow observe it or interact with it. It exists in a state known as the quantum waveform until the act of observing it causes the waveform to collapse and reveal a precise location. To make things more confusing, that observed location of the electron is only relative to the observer, not necessarily to the wider universe. If you’re thinking that this makes the universe feel incredibly imprecise, I can’t disagree. Not only that, but the implication of the theory is that the existence of everything depends on there being an observer (kind of the ultimate expression of the age-old dilemma: “if a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”) So who is this observer? Us? God? An alien on planet Zyglug?

There are other problems with the interpretation too (look up “Schrodinger’s Cat” if you’re not already familiar with it) so in 1952 David Bohm proposed an explanation called decoherence which suggested that the waveforms don’t actually collapse, but the information (ie. the location of the electron) leaks into the world outside the wave and can be observed. Then in 1957 Hugh Everett theorized that, in essence, the electron exists in every possible location in a multitude of separate universes which never interact with each other—no waveform collapse required (but an infinity of different dimensions!) This came to be known as the many worlds interpretation.

On the scale of our everyday human life, science fiction writers took this to mean that whenever we face a choice (even as small as deciding to turn left or right at an intersection) we actually do both, creating two new universes that then proceed along new, separate paths. See why I used the word infinite? Because this doesn’t just apply to every human being and every possible decision we make, but to every single particle in the universe and every possible motion each particle could take.

Naturally, science fiction took to this idea like a cat to cream, and hundreds of stories have since been written involving alternate realities, alternate histories etc. with interesting variations. I recently enjoyed how a novel called Time Machines Repaired While U Wait by K.A. Bedford combined the many worlds concept with time travel. In Bedford’s future world, time machines are a consumer item, and you can go back in time to change some things (maybe to reverse a terrible decision that ruined your life) but while you might go on to enjoy a new and improved timeline, the old one still exists with the original version of you still schlepping through the same bad life. Not a perfect solution!

I’ve always objected to the many worlds interpretation just because it’s so unwieldy—a whole separate universe for every possible motion of every single particle in the cosmos? Seriously? But my scepticism hasn’t prevent me from occasionally riffing on the idea myself in my fiction. Have a look at a story of mine called “No Walls” in which the protagonist tunes himself in and out of other dimensions in order to pass through solid objects like a ghost (and runs afoul of some major pitfalls).

The many worlds interpretation provides writers with a truly endless list of potential plots and settings, but it also forces me into an interesting conclusion:

If the multiverse theory is true, then everything that’s possible (including what’s possible in alternate universes where even the laws of physics are different) actually exists. In that case, there is no such thing as science fiction and fantasy, because even the most complex futuristic societies and the most exotic fantasy realms are reality…somewhere.

No more arguments over whether Star Wars is SF or F—it’s just mainstream fiction set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (in another dimension!)

WORLD-BUILDING: CREATIVE INDULGENCE OR SFF NECESSITY?

I recently listened to a presentation about world-building in science fiction and fantasy by SFF author J.M. Frey (she has the best world-building tool/questionnaire I’ve ever seen. It fills me with equal parts admiration and shame!) It got me to noticing what a wide gap there is between hastily-written space operas or Tolkien wannabees and the great works from authors like Frank Herbert, Larry Niven and others. Obviously not all science fiction and fantasy is about describing a really alien culture—after all, a lot of SF especially is meant as allegory, holding our own society up to a mirror. When the Planet of the Apes movies explore the subject of racism, it wouldn’t serve that theme to make the ape society radically different from our own. But when fiction is meant to stretch our minds, it’s almost mandatory that the setting be full of novelty. Right?

How many high fantasy stories have you read whose characters wear armour, wield swords, and drink beer in roadside taverns? If it’s meant to be an alternate history or parallel Earth, OK. But a true fantasy world or alien planet? What if steel was never forged in that world? Most likely they wouldn’t use edged weapons because blades of rock and wood dull too quickly. Their armour would be more like thick padding to protect against hits from wooden staffs or hurled projectiles. Or maybe they use some kind of complex chemo-hormonal negotiation to solve conflicts instead of fighting! Without scythes they might never have harvested grain in quantities large enough to ferment into a drink. Heck, who says these people even developed a taste for fermented juices? What would their social structure look like then? What would replace the smoky tavern with grizzled patrons glaring suspiciously at every stranger who darkens the door? Something interesting, I’ll bet.

How many space stories have you read where the aliens use money, trade sex for favours or currency, eat together in social gatherings, and have elected councils or hereditary oligarchies for government? Religions, workforce structures, and family trees that are just off-kilter versions of our own with a made-up name? Yes, when your primary aim is to roll out an action plot or explore a significant moral issue, these things can be shortcuts that keep the tale from becoming too confusing or bloated, but do they create an immersive reading experience so compelling that it’s unforgettable?

My point is that, if you’re going to present a truly non-human society—alien or magical—it’s a cop-out to fill it with direct equivalents to the familiar elements of our world, even thinly-veiled ones. There must be lots of different ways a species can address the necessities of life other than the paths humans chose, and exploring those is challenging and fun for both author and reader.

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye is still one of my favourite depictions of an authentically alien species, in fact the “Moties” include an impressive number of specialized subspecies, too. In Dragon’s Egg Robert L. Forward presents the Cheela, aliens that flow along the magnetic fields on the surface of a neutron star. The Oankali of Octavia E. Butler’s Lilith’s Brood trilogy stand out in my memory for their creatively-developed sexual and social relationships. But there are many great depictions of non-human cultures out there. Their alienness doesn’t keep us from relating to the characters, nor does it handicap the presentation of “universal” themes (by definition). What it does do is enrich the reading experience, and I expect it also goes a long way toward reducing our natural xenophobia—our resistance to the “other”. That’s not only a good thing if we ever are visited by aliens, but it could sure help our own world run a little smoother here and now!

If this sounds suspiciously like a lecture to my future self, you’re right. I’m always looking for ways to improve my writing, and this is one of them.

Obviously there’s a balancing act that has to be performed. If the reader has to expend too much mental energy trying to keep track of all of the different names, class structures, sexes, languages, forms of exchange etc., they may well give up on the exercise as not worth the effort. And if the invented threads of your tapestry aren’t logical and consistent, they’re distractions at the very least—at worst, they can cause the whole credibility of the story to unravel.

But let’s never forget that the stories we love have a rich heritage of broadening the mind. And there’s a reason we call SFF the literature of the imagination.

WEATHER WEIRD ENOUGH TO INSPIRE SCIENCE FICTION

Strange weather is happening all around us. Devastating heat waves and floods, soaring numbers of wildfires, rampaging storms of almost unprecedented frequency and ferocity—we’ve been warned about climate change for decades, yet many still refuse to believe that, a) it’s happening, b) we caused it, and c) it’s very unlikely that we can stop it. Most critically, some powerful world leaders are still trying to deny it (yes, I’m talking about you, Donald) and refuse to take the steps that might give us a fighting chance of at least reducing the disastrous effects still to come.

While some high-profile science fiction works have addressed the subject (including Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain and its two sequels, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl) there’s not as much as I would have expected. Science fiction has a strong tradition of cautionary tales—spotting dangerous trends in society and extrapolating the potential pitfalls so as to warn our fellow humans which paths not to take. Climate change is not only a deadly precipice toward which we’re racing, but it’s brought about by things we’ve done and are still doing, and there are ways we might yet escape the worst of it if we take bold action in time. Plus, as with all things related to weather, it will affect every single human on the planet in a myriad of individual ways. In other words, it’s tailor-made for enough unique science fiction stories to fill a bookstore. I could argue that we might even have an obligation to write about it, because the alarm has been sounded and too many people just aren’t listening.

[Based on numerous interviews with climate scientists, David Wallace-Wells writes in New York magazine that the newest mass extinction event in Earth’s history has now begun and that we’re likely to become victims of it. Maybe it’s a worst-case scenario, but maybe not!]

Is it that we think the reading public has been oversaturated with climate news in mainstream media? Are we afraid to write about it because the potential effects are more suited to tales of the zombie apocalypse? Or is it because describing what we really see ahead on the road for humanity is simply too grim without enough real hope? After all, even disaster fiction (one of my favourite sub-genres) usually offers some form of happy ending, especially if brilliant scientists can come up with a last minute stroke of genius that saves the planet and everyone on it.

But climate change has been allowed to gain too much momentum for it to be solved by any single human solution, no matter how ingenious. So do we steer away from a subject that won’t give us that satisfying “quick fix”?

The top experts on climate change no longer talk about us preventing it—it’s already occurring, and while we must take drastic measures to reduce our carbon emissions, that will no longer be enough on its own to avoid disaster. We’re going to have to take proactive steps to remove carbon from the air and mitigate the warming of the atmosphere in other ways. Ideas being proposed already sound like science fiction (seeding the upper atmosphere with sulphur dioxide, or reflective particles to turn back sunlight. Giant sun shields in orbit.) So why not go all out and let our SF-trained imaginations run free? After all, it’s not only about trying to prevent further devastation, but how we’ll all cope with the unavoidable effects.

The potential plots are limitless: a family of refugees struggles to navigate the no-man’s-land between nations in a perpetual war over habitable land and water resources; a team of engineers races to create emergency colonies on the Moon or Mars in an attempt to save as many humans and other endangered species as possible; medical researchers frantically search for a cure for a deadly organism released by thawing permafrost (possibly even of alien origin); workers suddenly unemployed and destitute band together to build a new kind of nation from the ashes of the old. No matter what kind of book you like to write, you’ll find plenty of fodder in a world facing radical climate change.

Maybe the time has passed to write purely cautionary tales about it, but human beings facing  terrifying scenarios with gutsy sacrifices and ingenuity is the stuff of compelling fiction. And maybe there is hope. Especially if we can help by pointing the way to the light.

BRINGING THE DEAD BACK TO LIFE

Determining the point of death used to be fairly straightforward—when your heart stopped beating, that was it. Then we learned how to resuscitate a stopped heart, and over the years we learned more and more ways to keep a person alive with technology when their own body can’t do it on its own. From that came the concept of brain death: when our best sensing technologies, like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) can no longer detect any brain activity, the person is declared dead. Because, after all, the brain runs everything. When too many brain cells (neurons) are badly damaged, coherent signals can no longer pass along the neural networks that are the body’s control system.

But what if you could stimulate the growth of fresh, undamaged neurons, and get them firing? Would that revive brain function? Could it bring the person back to life?

Reanimating the dead is a concept that’s been around a whole lot longer than the novel Frankenstein, possibly because people whose heartbeats have become too faint to easily detect by touch or sound sometimes do “come back to life”. So if it can happen spontaneously, there must be ways of doing it deliberately, right? (If you want to read about some of the utterly ghoulish attempts made over the past few centuries, have a look here.)

The challenge is not something that modern science can resist. So word has recently come that a US company called Bioquark will undertake human trials in an unnamed Latin American country to revive twenty patients who’ve been declared brain dead. It’s a three-step process involving stem cells, peptides, and laser stimulation. You’ve probably heard of stem cells—they’re the body’s “blank slates” which, at need, can become nearly any kind of specialized body cell. They’re used in everything from knee regeneration to cancer treatments these days, and it isn’t really a stretch to think they might be used to replace damaged neurons. In the Bioquark tests, the stem cells will be harvested from the patient’s own body. Then they’ll be re-injected into the patient’s spinal cord, along with proteins called peptides, in an effort to convince the cells to become neurons. That “convincing” will take the form of laser therapy and the stimulation of the brain’s median nerve for fifteen days.

In case you’re wondering if all of that treatment culminates in a bunch of electrodes and a lightning storm…well, I don’t think it will be that flashy—probably just a lot of scanning to see if anything’s happening. But the thing is, Bioquark hasn’t tested the procedure on animals first, and has no plans to. They’d originally intended to run their trials in India, but the Indian Council of Medical Research got wind of it and “invited” them to go elsewhere. So Latin America it is. Somewhere. We think.

Science fiction and fantasy are full of stories of the dead being brought back to life. One of the most common tropes has the unfortunate majority of humankind turned into zombies (perhaps named as such, but often not) as in Matheson’s I Am Legend. But Frank Herbert’s Dune series features an interesting take in the form of the gholas—technically clones of dead people, but potentially able to regain the full personality and memories of the original.

A Chinese science fiction writer named Du Hong recently paid more than $120,000 to have her brain frozen at a facility in Scottsdale, Arizona after her death from cancer, in hopes that future science will be able to reanimate it (or at the very least, experiment with it—she was OK with that too). The idea of being frozen and later returned to life is common in SF, from Buck Rogers to the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, and it’s only a short step to the deliberate cryonic suspension used for space travellers in stories like Lost In Space and 2001: A Space Odyssey (although those characters aren’t actually dead).

Alternate history buffs imagine the consequences of bringing notable figures from history back to life. Others propose returning the dead to consciousness in a robot body, or even just a computer system with no body at all. There are endless ways of using the subject in fiction, and readers are endlessly fascinated with it because we can’t escape the knowledge of our own inevitable death some day. So it’s easy to get excited about experiments like Bioquark’s.

I’ve often expressed my concerns about the ethics and hazards of certain biomedical procedures, but at least in most cases, even with the fairly bizarre stuff, the patients have consented to become guinea pigs. How can someone who’s clinically dead give their consent? Even with the support of next-of-kin, this is a very troublesome question. Especially since, when a person’s neurons have been too badly damaged to keep them alive, it isn’t likely that they could be revived without some serious loss of function. We can get a good idea of the potential results from seeing stroke victims and other people with brain injuries.

Is a life with significant impairments a life worth returning to? Maybe. It would depend on a lot of factors, and every individual might make a different choice. The point is, with Bioquark’s procedure the side-effects are impossible to know beforehand, and the person most affected can’t be consulted, so no choice is possible.

Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t given a choice, and that didn’t turn out too well.

WHAT WILL JUSTIFY HUMAN EXPANSION INTO SPACE?

Artist concept courtesy of NASA

Artist concept courtesy of NASA

I’d be willing to bet that the great majority of science fiction stories set in the future include a significant human presence in outer space as a given, even if the stories themselves aren’t about space. Space travel is just a huge part of the SF imagination. Human colonies on the Moon, Mars, moons of the gas giants, and at least some asteroids. Regular traffic to and from Earth, with established shipping routes weaving through the solar system for passengers and cargo. Maybe huge colony ships or faster-than-light spacecraft charging their way toward other suns.

But why do we seem so sure that will happen? Just because it would be cool?

That isn’t the way the human world works. To be frank, the forces that drive human exploration and expansion are usually necessity and greed. We go to new places because there isn’t enough room at home (or resources, or peace and prosperity) or because somebody stands to make a lot of money. But what about going beyond our own planet?

I’ve discussed the economics of space mining before. In these days when private enterprise is getting into the space launch business, companies like SpaceX and Orbital Science still need $27,000 to $43,000 to take a pound of cargo and put it into orbit. Even in the space shuttle days (because it could carry much more cargo) the price per pound was about $10,000. Now imagine the amount of steel and other heavy stuff needed to build a big transportation hub and/or warehouse complex in orbit. Or the weight of construction equipment needed to be hauled to the Moon to dig mines. Or even just the fuel to power the equipment and spacecraft. Water is about the cheapest fuel around (broken into hydrogen and oxygen), but it’s still heavy (that half-litre bottle you like to drink weighs more than a pound).

It’s true that the first three hundred kilometers of the journey from Earth are by far the most costly, so there have been proposals to replace rocket boosters with magnetically-levitating launch tracks, or a space elevator with cables made of nanomaterials hung from giant stations in geostationary orbit. There are lots of creative launch alternatives, but such things would cost billions, if not trillions of dollars to build. And all of that is just to create the infrastructure that mining and shipping operations would require.

What end product could possibly be worth such an investment? Even if speculations are true that some asteroids might contain as much platinum and related metals as have ever been mined on Earth (only an estimated 16 tons), with a price this week of around $950 per ounce that still only amounts to about $480 million. It would take a lot of asteroids for investors to make their money back, and that’s assuming the demand and price for platinum metals would stay high (which it wouldn’t with such large amounts dumped onto the market).

Some will say that there’s huge value in research and certain kinds of chemical processing that can only be carried out in zero gravity. That may very well be true, but such operations would be best placed in Earth orbit, close to the consumer market—there would be no need to colonize other planets for them.

All in all, I’m of the opinion that, at least until the Earth completely runs out of the mineral resources we need (including recycled materials), space mining with Earth as its main market won’t be the driver that creates a system of colonies and industries throughout the solar system. But I used italics because, if we create colonies on other planets and moons for some other reason, then space mining will be much more viable to supply those outposts than having to ship material from Earth.

So my point is that, if a widespread human presence in space beyond the Earth is ever to happen, it will be for reasons other than profit.

“Running out of room at home” could be one such reason—we don’t yet have our population growth under control, and rising living standards are creating a demand for food and other goods that may be beyond our beleaguered planet’s ability to supply for much longer. But as science fiction buffs, we can speculate about others:

- pollution, climate change, or nuclear war makes the planet unliveable.

- runaway products of genetic engineering or nano-engineering make the planet unliveable.

- a cosmic catastrophe like an asteroid strike, solar flare-up, or magnetic field disruption makes the planet unliveable.

- the Earth is about to be swallowed by a black hole (and would therefore be unliveable!)

Or possibly if the uber-wealthy 1% and the exploited 99% just can’t live together on the same planet any longer.

There are happier possibilities too:

- if a very inexpensive gravity-controlling technology were developed (especially in combination with force-field shields against radiation). Spacecraft might be less costly than submarines.

- if a faster-than-light spaceship drive were invented. We’d have a much greater incentive to explore other star systems (spared hundreds of years of travel time).

- if life is discovered on other planets or moons. We’d feel compelled to investigate it and possibly even protect and nurture it long-term.

- if research discovered that living in space or on other worlds provided a significant benefit to human health and lifespan.

-if genetic engineering made humans able to thrive under the harsher conditions elsewhere in the solar system (lower gravity, higher radiation, different atmospheres and temperatures).

Or if an advanced alien race were to make its presence known to us—whether in peace or in conflict—we’d have a strong impetus to establish a firm foothold in space.

Will there ever be humans living and working all over the solar system and beyond? I think so. Eventually. But it’ll take a very compelling motivation—maybe many compelling motivations—to make it happen. For once, the lust for money won’t be enough.

TIME FOR ANOTHER LOOK AT TIME?

A recent release from the University of British Columbia, Canada, inspired me to make the time to revisit the always timely subject of time travel (OK, maybe I should travel back in time and redo that sentence….)

Ben Tippett, a mathematics and physics instructor at UBC’s Okanagan campus, specializes in Einstein’s theory of general relativity and has come up with the mathematics to show that time travel should be possible. I’ll spare you my attempt to explain it mathematically (neither of us has that much time) but you’ve probably heard space described as being like a giant trampoline: it’s fairly flat in most places, but if you place something big and heavy on it (like a bowling ball, or a planet) you’ll make a deep depression in the fabric, and things nearby will roll down the side of the depression toward the object at the bottom. That’s a visualization of the force of gravity which, Einstein says, creates curves like that in space. UBC’s Tippett says that high gravity bends time as well as space, citing evidence that time passes more slowly close to a black hole, for instance. Bend time enough, and you can curve it into a loop that could be travelled backward or forward. (Technically, physicists call it a “closed time-like curve”.) At least, that’s what Tippett’s mathematical model shows. How it could be done is a whole other story—as he’s quick to point out, it would require exotic substances that don’t currently exist.

Still, I’m happy about any evidence that doesn’t rule out the possibility of time travel (I also like that Tippet named his model a Traversable Acausal Retrograde Domain in Space-time (TARDIS), which all Dr. Who fans will appreciate).

Actual hypotheses about how time travel would have to be accomplished include things like infinitely long cylinders spinning at a few billion revolutions per minute with ten times the mass of the sun, or donut-shaped areas of vacuum surrounded by hugely powerful and precisely focused gravitational fields (and that one also has a limitation that you couldn’t travel to a time before the machine was created.) Even Elon Musk won’t be bankrolling projects like that any time soon.

So should science fiction writers just drop the whole idea of time travel?

Not on your life (or infinitely recurring lifetimes, either).

H.G Wells didn’t try to explain the science when he wrote The Time Machine, and if it’s good enough for Herb it’s good enough for us. Like most of the best science fiction, the novel was a commentary on Wells’ own time, especially socialism and the British class system. It’s also wonderfully creepy. Better to leave out the dreary (and probably wrong) explanation of how the thing works, and focus on the story: the myriad ways time travel might be used—and mess things up!

A whole sub-genre of time travel stories involves characters messing with history, including one of my favourites, A Sound of Thunder by Ray Bradbury, in which the squashing of a butterfly changes the future. Another sub-genre professes to follow the credo that time travel is impossible, so instead the characters travel to a different time in an alternate universe. Michael Crichton’s Timeline is one of those, allowing the protagonists to have lots of adventures in the past, and even stay there, without screwing up our timeline (the title notwithstanding). Apparently it’s OK to screw up somebody else’s universe!

Robert J. Sawyer played a different trick with time in the novel Flashforward in which everyone on Earth gets a glimpse of their lives twenty-one years in the future (but doesn’t actually travel there). A host of personal dilemmas ensues. Sawyer also does something tricky with time travel in his novel Starplex—he avoids having to explain the technology by making it an exclusive ability of beings from billions of years in the future. Michael Swanwick’s Bones of the Earth does something similar, offering time travel as a gift from beings of the extremely far future to near-present-day humans, under very strict conditions. It’s a neat dodge—you don’t have to justify or explain time travel, you just have to believe that humans will someday figure it out.

All I can say is: if you’re reading this in the year 2 Billion AD, come back and visit me. We’ll talk.

A MARRIAGE OF MIND AND MACHINE

Billionaire Elon Musk knows how to get attention. Famous for his successful Tesla Inc. motor company (electric cars and the batteries to run them), Solar City (solar power), SpaceX (private space venture) and other companies, he made his first fortune as a co-founder of PayPal. Musk has a brilliant mind and a Midas touch. When he speaks people listen, and most recently he decided to speak about direct interfaces between human brains and electronic computers.

His newest company is called Neuralink, and Musk says it will use a technology in development called neural lace to enable direct connections between our flesh-and-blood brains and the digital world. For decades, researchers have worked to translate electrical signals in the brain, detected by electroencephalograms (EEG) and other methods, to better understand how the mind works, to explore the functioning of our senses, and even to directly control mechanical devices. Such research provides hope for victims of paralysis and degenerative diseases, permitting them to control artificial limbs, for instance, as well as enabling blind people to see, after a fashion. But what if we could do much more? What if our brains could interact seamlessly with computers without the need for physical interfaces like a keyboard, a mouse, or speech-to-text software?

Surf the web with a mere thought. Perform computer-swift calculations of any kind. Steer your car without touching any controls. Thought would instantly become action.

Musk’s announced reasons for starting Neuralink have to do with a project he co-chairs called Open AI which includes a number of other tech billionaires who believe that, while artificial intelligence is one of the greatest threats to the survival of humankind, it’s a genie that can’t be put back into the bottle. So the best way to save ourselves from falling victim to “evil AI” (like Skynet in the Terminator movies) is to develop “friendly AI” first. Now Musk asserts that the ultimate way to thwart the rise of dangerous AI is to beat computers to the punch by augmenting humans with computer intelligence. We will be the AI—combining both human and computer capabilities to outperform pure computer intelligence alone, and maybe halt the drive to produce true AI completely.

The first step is that seamless brain-computer interface. Neuralink’s neural lace is a kind of mesh that is surgically injected into the brain and spreads itself out from there, connecting with brain cells and eventually becoming fully accepted into the flesh neural network. The claim is that it can detect brain activity with much greater accuracy and less “signal noise” than traditional electrodes. It will certainly be interesting to see how well it can be made to work.

A novel manuscript of mine that’s currently under consideration by several publishers is about this very thing: what happens when truly effective brain-computer interfaces become a reality? It’s only a matter of time, and the possibilities are both breathtaking and frightening. Think of all the services your smart phone provides, except available with a mere thought. Imagine person-to-person networking that would make Facebook look like snail mail. But on the negative side comes the fear of mind control by governments, corporations, or hackers who could plant their own information directly into your brain, and possibly even control your body remotely. My novel also explores the potential abuses of marketing in a world of computer-linked minds (giving a whole new meaning to the concept of persuasion).

Musk, and others, believe that linking ourselves directly to computers is the next step in human evolution, and they’re probably right. There are many other teams working on the concept, including a company called Kernel founded by tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson. I’m grateful that someone with Musk’s intelligence, tempered by a sincere desire for the betterment of humanity, is taking the lead in this field. Because the potential for abuse is enough to make my brain blow a fuse.

THE LONER MYTH IN SF

I haven’t posted a blog in a while because I’ve been in the process of moving from a small town home to an island cabin in a lake in Northern Ontario, Canada. It’s off the grid and as of this writing I still don’t have my solar power system up and running yet, so electricity is rationed!

I don’t think of my new home as all that isolated—I have neighbours and an all-season road just a few kilometers away—but while visiting my kids and their families in Toronto recently, the contrast struck me as pretty extreme. On the one hand, millions of people filling huge tracts of cookie-cutter housing and scores of high-rise condominiums, clogging eight-lane highways and a vast transit network. On the other hand, my wife and I using a snowmobile to get between house and car, and sometimes not seeing another soul for days at a time.

It often makes me think of those post-apocalyptic science fiction stories in which one lone man or woman faces a struggle to survive on their own resources. Stories like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend—a story of a lone survivor of a biological disaster amid a world of zombies. It’s been filmed numerous times under various names, starring Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, Will Smith and others. Why are such stories so popular? Is it because being left on our own is our greatest fear? Or our secret wish? Do we thrill with horror at the thought of being left to our own devices in a starkly hostile world, or is such a scenario a kind of wish fulfillment when the pressure of our crowded cities begins to get to us?

Scenarios like these aren’t impossible—if the human race is wiped out (absent the complete destruction of the planet) someone will be the last. And I accept it as a good way of telling a narrative that helps the reader fully identify with the protagonist. But such extraordinary solitude is usually anything but deliberate.

There are also space tales of lone humans being stranded on strange planets through accident or misfortune and thrust into a battle for survival. Andy Weir’s The Martian comes to mind. But it’s notable that, while astronaut Mark Watney manages to survive for a time on his own, ultimate safety requires a massive effort involving hundreds of people to bring him home.

That’s realistic. We need others to help us survive.

What I find hard to swallow are the stories that place a single human in space or on another planet as part of a deliberate plan, assigned to carry out some lonely duty. The reason they’re sent alone is rarely given. The Sam Rockwell movie Moon is one such. Yes, he has the ‘companionship’ of an AI, but no living human, and strange experiences ensue. Other SF short stories and novels also feature loner types assigned to some isolated outpost all on their own.

Why?

Why would anyone think that was a good idea?

There are, and maybe always have been, some people who choose to live a solitary life and manage to be self-sufficient—more or less—prospectors, lighthouse keepers, and fur trappers, for instance. But even most of them ultimately depend on others in some way, coming in from the wilderness to trade goods for food and other supplies produced by someone else. And that’s on the planet Earth, rich with sufficient air, water, energy, and food for our needs. Lone spacemen exploring the vast expanses between the stars in one-man ships doesn’t make a lot of sense (much as I love the Beowulf Shaeffer stories of Larry Niven’s Known Space series). The infrastructure required to support several people, or a dozen, isn’t that much greater than what’s required for a single pilot, yet offers so much more productivity, and sheer redundancy in the event of an accident or failure of some kind. And that’s not even considering the mental side-effects of prolonged and extreme solitude.

We’re social creatures—we evolved that way and we reject it only at great risk to our mental and physical health. We need others for company; we need others for the skills and labour they offer beyond our own; and we often need others to bail us out when we get in a jam. (My wife and I live on an island, but we’ve only managed to build our home and maintain it with the generous and all-too-frequent help of many friends and family members.)

So write your adventure yarn about the amazing outcast who braves the uncaring universe all alone. But please give me a darn good reason he or she isn’t doing it with a little help from their friends.

CAN DYSTOPIAN FICTION BECOME FACT? IF WE LET IT

As I write this, Donald Trump is in his second week as President of the United States. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has told easily-disproved lies with the boldest of faces. But then, Toronto’s The Star newspaper is now keeping a running list of the false claims Trump himself has made since becoming President. And Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway has cited a “massacre” that never happened as a defense for the travel ban against seven Muslim countries. Along with Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts”, it’s inevitable that people would be reminded of George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. No surprise, then, that the 1949 novel has suddenly become a bestseller again, selling out at Amazon and elsewhere.

The totalitarian government of the country Airstrip One that Orwell describes in the novel rules with an iron fist over a mostly uneducated lower class population, and seeks power above all. But the element of the novel that resonates the most this week is Airstrip One’s Ministry of Truth which is, of course, about anything but truth. Its work is to revise history to make it match the party line, to erase troublesome figures and events from news and historical accounts. The Ministry’s “Newspeak” is official language that mostly obscures the truth and encourages “doublethink” requiring citizens to embrace opposing concepts, such as “black is white” (if the government says so). Alternative facts, indeed. The citizens of Airstrip One have no freedom and no privacy—almost all of us are familiar with the famous slogan “Big Brother is Watching You.”

In these days when the National Security Agency in the U.S. has surveillance powers that beggar belief, and even corporations know virtually everything about us and our movements thanks to reward programs, facial recognition, and our ever-present smartphones, the Big Brother concept is barely fiction anymore.

Of course, Nineteen Eighty-Four is only one of the best-known dystopian novels, but others are also disturbingly relevant to current events. Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World describes the year of 632 A.F. (“After Ford”) in which humans are produced in test tubes conforming to a very rigid class structure by genetics. Citizens’ behaviour is controlled through sleep-conditioning. And the masses are pacified by an all-purpose feel-good drug called soma, so that personal freedom can be sacrificed for the cause of social stability. Huxley was pretty familiar with mind-altering drugs, but he didn’t know the distraction value of television, the internet, social media and text messaging. I feel sure he would have recognized all of those as perfect means to keep the general population from looking too deeply into their governments’ actions and motives. Modern-day leaders have certainly embraced the sleight-of-hand techniques that technology offers them to keep the voters’ attention elsewhere.

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 envisioned another totalitarian world in which books are banned and even burned (along with their owners!) in a deliberate attempt to pacify and control the general populace by keeping citizens from thinking for themselves. Orwell also thought such a government would ban books, while Huxley feared people would simply lose interest in reading all on their own (a circumstance that many believe is coming true). Although there’s been no move to ban books in general, many means are being used to diminish the effectiveness of the media that are most people’s main source of information about the state of their own countries. Leaders like Trump (and before him Canada’s past-Prime Minister Stephen Harper) have very combative relationships with the media; they portray members of the media as dishonest; they try to muzzle scientists and administrators (I have to think Trump got the idea from Harper, who did it first); and “false news” sources have sprung up like bad weeds all over the internet. These all have a similar effect to banning books: keeping people uninformed and more apt to believe what they’ve been told by “official sources” (the louder, the better) rather than form their own opinions.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale a fiercely right-wing Christian movement has overthrown the American government and returned all women back to the status of being the property of men. That may seem quite a distance from Trump’s attitude toward women, including his executive order banning any federal money from going to international groups that perform or provide information about abortion. But obviously the many millions of women who marched in protest in the U.S. and all around the world the day after his inauguration don’t think so.

A huge number of dystopian novels feature totalitarian governments, religious and cultural oppression, and the suppression of individual rights. They’re not far-fetched—it has happened in the past. And today’s technology—the omnipresent internet, computer hacking, electronic surveillance techniques, plus the constant distractions of smartphones, social media, and other entertainment—makes the modern world more fertile ground than ever for the rise of such movements. The desire and the means are already in place. All we have to do is to keep ourselves ignorant, apathetic, and distracted, and the rest will take care of itself.

Regimes like that can happen if we allow them to happen.

It’s interesting that novels like The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Divergent and others have been among the most popular books read by young adults. You have to wonder how many of the warning signs young readers recognize in the world around them. Far too many of their elders don’t seem to.

DISASTER STORIES: MORE THAN JUST A GUILTY PLEASURE?

I love disaster stories.

I usually explain it by saying that disaster scenarios bring out the best and the worst in humanity, which makes for terrific character-building and storytelling potential. Heroism and sacrifice, but also the self-serving villains we love to hiss and boo at. While fantasy novels let us imagine what it would be like to live in such a world, disaster stories are more than just guilty pleasures: they make us dig deeper, to ask ourselves “What would I do in such a situation?”

That’s my theory. Or maybe I’m just a little twisted. No psychoanalysis, please.

The first SF disaster novel I remember reading was J.G. Ballard’s first novel The Wind From Nowhere. Though he later pretty much disowned it (and it might suck if I were to re-read it now) I was impressed at the time with the image of a world ravaged by an ever-growing wind, and the noble attempts of mere humans to survive it. John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids is still one of my all-time favourite books, in which most of humanity is stricken blind and the carnivorous, mobile, and perhaps even intelligent triffid plants gain the upper hand. It’s simply chilling, told in an understated British style. In fact, UK writers seem to have produced many more disaster novels than those from other English-speaking countries. In the US the disaster genre has found its expression more often in the movies (although some, like Michael Crichton’s terrific The Andromeda Strain succeeded on both paper and film). While Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle combined their talents to tell about a mammoth comet impacting the Earth in the 1977 novel Lucifer’s Hammer, it’s probably not as well known as the two movies with similar plots Deep Impact and Armageddon both released in 1998 (because Hollywood likes to run with themes).

Which brings me to my second point about disaster stories. There’s a sub-genre of science fiction that can be called “cautionary tales” that describe how things can go wrong as a warning to all of us. Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 are classic examples. And disaster stories are cautionaries at full blast. While some plots involve a purely natural threat, like a solar flare-up or a killer rock from space, many others (nuclear melt-downs, deadly plagues, and nanotechnology run riot) point the finger at potential man-made disasters. Not only do they warn us about paths we shouldn’t take with our technology, but also how critically important it is to be prepared for when disaster strikes.

Especially since the 1990’s there have been significant efforts to detect and plot the orbits of Near Earth Objects—things like asteroids and comets in our space neighbourhood that could potentially strike the planet with destructive results. And yes, there’s been serious discussion about how to send a rocket crew out to blast a threatening rock away from its collision course, just like Bruce Willis and the boys. The Spaceguard Foundation based in Italy, the UK’s SpaceGuard Centre, and other projects continue to work in the field, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in the US recently released a National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy from a working group that involved many different federal agencies. It’s the kind of collaborative approach that’s needed to cope with disasters on a national, or even global scale.

Society’s collective mindset is important—we have to believe that a given scenario is plausible before we will think about ways to protect ourselves from it. Science fiction fertilizes that soil. Perhaps we’re more prepared for crises like the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak because of pandemic-themed stories like Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, Stephen King’s The Stand, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. A huge number of nuclear holocaust novels, from Shute’s On The Beach to Frank’s Alas, Babylon to Zelazny’s Damnation Alley help to keep the pressure on world leaders for nuclear disarmament (apparently Donald Trump doesn’t read). Of course, lots of novels and movies about rogue artificial intelligences and nanotechnology run amuck have ensured a very active public discussion about those areas of research and restrictions that should be considered.

Think tanks and government agencies collectively spend millions organizing brainstorming sessions to prepare for potential disasters of every description. Maybe their first step should be to stock up their SF libraries. Yes, I’m being a little facetious, but I’d like to believe that our literature of the imagination has helped to create a mindset that will save many lives in the centuries to come.

Have I written disaster stories myself? Of course! I invite you to read my collection Disastrous! Three Stories of the End of the World available as a free ebook download from my website bookstore or from Kobo. (I made it free on Amazon too, but they put the price back up!)

Enjoy!