Robots and Free Will

It's a common trope in SF that robots and other artificial lifeforms don't have free will. Or if they have free will, somehow their ability to act is constrained in a way that ours is not. Think, for example, of the film The Matrix (one I enjoyed a great deal), where Neo is able to assimilate and act within the Matrix in a way that none of the other constructs there can.

All this makes sense if the construct is simple and therefore has a restricted suite of behaviors that are, for all intents and purposes, hardwired and not plastic. But as the construct becomes more complex, the trope becomes less persuasive. Eventually it breaks down completely.

For we ourselves are 'constructs' of a sort: we are biological machines. Biological machines are simply very complex chemical machines, which are themselves physical machines. We're every bit as much machines as are any of the robots in SF; we're just much more complex and hence we have open to us a much greater repertoire of behaviors and a much greater range of plasticity and adaptability.

Much of the distinction between the human mind and the robot comes from a romantic vitalism that says there's something special about life, in particular about human life, that can never be copied in a construct. There's something "authentic" in us that goes beyond our physical makeup.

Unfortunately this is only a fantasy, exploded by science.

And so robots can have free will just as much as we can, if they are complex enough in the right ways.


Scalzi on Star Wars

John Scalzi nails a few of the more egregious design fails in the Star Wars universe, in a new Film Critic post.

As someone attempting to write believable SF fiction, it amazes me how readily we overlook absurd plot or design faults, when the overall story is strong enough. There's a lesson there somewhere: while much critic or fan chatter revolves around the minutiae of consistency and believability, if the narrative is strong enough none of those matter a whit.

Why should that matter? The case of R2D2 and C3PO are particularly interesting. As Scalzi points out (and many others have before him), neither of their designs makes sense. Yet their personalities are so well delineated and appealing, mostly because of the situation they're put in and the way they doggedly work at getting out of it, that we overlook virtually everything else. And by "we" I mean the vast majority of the general public, myself included. It's not that R2D2's inability to speak made no difference to me, but rather that past a certain point I didn't really care. (And anyhow he made those chirps and beeps that were close enough to conversation).

Narrative trumps consistency and believability all the time, or so it would seem. 



Congrats to my good friend Luis Alfonso Gámez of the spanish Círculo Escéptico for the inaugural post of his new blog on the CSI website. It's called ¡Paparruchas!, which means, basically, stuff and nonsense.

Knowing Luis Alfonso, I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun, with deft, clear writing. In Spanish, of course!


On Writing What You Know

I've been meaning to write about this topic for awhile now. A new post on Nancy Kress's blog has finally roused me from my dogmatic slumber to do so.

Write what you know. That was the first thing that was drummed into our little heads in creative writing classes in high school and university. In other words, no great flights of fancy; stick to experiences you yourself have had, or which you can extrapolate immediately from those experiences. That's what our teachers and professors meant by it.

The corollary to such admonishment, of course, was that writing Fantasy or Science Fiction was not approved of. It was assumed to be the opposite of 'writing what you know'.

What resulted from this advice, always, was a form of not-very-creative creative writing; fiction thinly separated from memoir. It always bored me, and eventually I gave up on the whole program.

If I want to read memoir, please, let me read the real thing: an actual history of someone's life. I don't see the point, particularly, in reading a fictional memoir of a false life. It's a pretty lie trying too hard to seem the truth.

In one sense, writing what you know is good advice: one can go very wrong in making stuff up. If one wants to write about being an auto mechanic, well, one ought to know something about the auto mechanic's life, or one's story will either be thin on detail, or wrong on the facts. And neither of those is any use to anyone.

But much of the great literature of the past was written by people who wrote about things they did not -- or could not -- know about. The great tradition of mythic literature would have been impossible otherwise. Homer didn't know anything about the Cyclops, Circe or the Sirens, nor the gods of the Iliad. He had heard stories, no doubt, but as for personal experiences, he made them all up.

And that, after all, is the point of anything fictional: it's all made up. At its most basic, fiction is a series of lies. For the lies to be compelling, they must be told convincingly, and that alone is the point of writing what you know. Write convincingly. But write with broad scope.


Fantasy vs. SF Redux: Authenticity

I discussed my take on the distinction between Fantasy and SF in an earlier blog postHERE is another very good take, courtesy of Karen Burnham's blog. Paraphrasing her, in SF the 'magic' is available to everyone in the universe, since it stems from impersonal laws of nature. But in Fantasy, there can be certain abilities or powers that are related to who or where you are, or to what something is (and that are unrelated to theoretically replicable physical makeup).

That's a fruitful distinction, in another sense as well: Fantasy is more closely allied with romantic notions of purity and authenticity than SF. It's no good having an exact copy of the magic sword; if it's not the real, authentic one, it ain't gonna work like the real, authentic one.

Similarly, in the Fantasy genre, places have powers simply in virtue of being those places. For a recent example of people, things and places with powers, see Gaiman's American Gods that I discussed in a previous blog post. Fantasy shares these romantic notions of authenticity with certain religions that, for example, view particular areas of the planet as holy and imbued with powers simply in virtue of being where they are.

In SF that should be impossible. If a place is powerful, it's powerful because its within a nexus of impersonal physical forces that could be replicated elsewhere, or even counteracted and eliminated with sufficient technological knowhow. If a person or a thing is powerful, again, it's powerful because of its physical makeup, or because of external forces that are themselves replicable.

The romantic notion of authenticity is one that deserves extended treatment and dissection. Someday I expect I'll write more about it.


Sculley on Jobs

I recommend any Mac heads out there read a transcript of an interview with John Sculley on his experiences working with Steve Jobs. Jobs is of the true geniuses of our time, in business, technology and industrial design.


Learning by Doing

Occam asked a question after my last post, wondering what problems I'd found in the draft of my manuscript. The short answer is that I'd chosen the wrong main character, midway through the writing process. I'd actually started the thing without any real notion of a strong main character at all, then later gone back and added a bunch that made the main character out of a very powerful person in the novel.

It was only subsequently re-reading an old copy of Orson Scott Card's book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy that I realized my mistake.

The odd thing is that I'd read that book before, and other similar words of sage advice, yet they hadn't stuck with me until I'd gone and made the errors that they warned against. It's as though it wasn't enough to read that there was a hole in the floor. I had to go trip in it to learn not to step there.

I suppose I've learned that lesson enough times in my life that I shouldn't be surprised by it anymore, and yet there it is. It's still surprising.


Trunk or Edit?

So I have a novel I've been working on for awhile now, one that I thought was finished a few months back. I started sending around query letters while I was doing some background reading on novel and query letter writing.

As an aside, there is a shockingly large amount of good information out there on novel and query letter writing. Or should I say, there's a shockingly large amount of information that's well written and persuasive on these topics, and quite a bit of it is SF related.

At any rate, having done the reading I began to realize that there were serious structural problems with my book that would likely make it impossible to write an effective query on its behalf. And this was going on while my queries, written to the best of my minor abilities, were going nowhere.

Fortunately it does seem to me that the problems I'd pinpointed were, though serious and extensive, soluble with cutting and reworking. We'll see if that pans out.

Now I'm deep in rewrite mode, and wondering when one decides that a book should be trunked rather than edited. Sure, if it looks like the problems with it are so extensive that no rewrite will do it justice, it should be trunked. But when else? Because I'm very much inclined to agree with the advice (found extensively) that one should only rewrite very selectively. It's almost always better just to start afresh with a new project.

At this point I've decided to finish this rewrite and begin again with the querying. If the second round goes nowhere, I'll trunk it and try again. But of course it'd be hard to trunk something that I like and that I've worked on for many months. Chalk it up to a learning experience? We'll see what happens.


Neil Gaiman's American Gods

Neil Gaiman's American Gods is a Very Good Book. It has excellent dialogue, characterization and an absorbing plot, squarely within the Fantasy genre. (It's not SF at all). To discuss it, I'm going to have to include some mild spoilers, so be forewarned.

Basically it asks what if each immigrant group came with its own gods to US shores, and what if these old gods were still pottering about, living like people with relatively normal lives but with odd magical abilities?

And what if the old gods were being weakened somehow by modernity, disappearing slowly, but trying to fight back? It's an interesting and potentially very fruitful sort of mythic storyline.

The main problem with the plot involves  the supposed Huge Upcoming Battle, that pits the old gods and the new American gods of media, the internet, and so on. (The two sides remain somewhat ill defined throughout, particularly the latter side, pitched as more or less evil).

The problem is that there is no conflict between those aspects of modernity and the old gods. Indeed, the old gods should expect to find solace and succor in technological advances such as the blind eye of media and the hyperactive internet. TV doesn't compete with the old gods, it makes them more real. The old gods live quite nicely on the internet.

The actual competition is between the old gods and the newer or better marketed gods of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. The actual competition is between the gods, old and new, and other sources of modernity such as science, skepticism and humanism, thought patterns that conflict with the very notion of gods or the supernatural.

(Of course, a large part of this conflict involves co-optation in one way or another. It isn't ever simply a matter of replacement, not on anything like a global or national scale).

I expect that Gaiman didn't take those latter routes because it would have been more difficult to come up with a compelling narrative -- or the kind of narrative that he found fruitful -- by having a fight between the old gods and Jesus, or gods and the godless. Those would have been very different stories, and to do them right one would have to avoid the morass of cliché that surrounds them.

In the interview section that closes out my copy, Gaiman says he wrote up an encounter between the main character and Jesus, during a scene replete with Christian symbolism. He says he found it "very unconvincing", so cut it from the book.

What results is, again, a Very Good Book, but one that skirts the surface of the issues involved, leaving many of the deepest foundations unexplored.


On Reading Frankenstein

So I finally got round to reading Frankenstein for the first time. It's often called the first real Science Fiction book, and I thought for that reason alone it ought to be on my reading list. Then passing a good hardcover edition at a book sale for two dollars sealed the deal.

First, a point I have to assume everyone makes about this book, is that the plot has virtually nothing to do with the movie editions that I can recall from my childhood. So let's get that out of the way. No furious hordes with pitchforks. It's a very internal book, going on mostly in the heads of the (two) protagonists.

The best part of the book, arguably one reason for its success, is that it's short and the plot is linear and has some impetus. (Though it's pretty obvious). And the romantic trope of the Faustian bargain for knowledge is a classic.

But there are so many holes in the plot that I find it difficult to get deeply into it. Why should Victor Frankenstein create a being that he finds so horrible? If you look at the critical passage, he first finds the monster beautiful, and then a paragraph later finds it ugly, with no explanation for the change. I suppose we are to assume that the monster became ugly in being brought to life, but this is a supposition I find incredible.

The second issue, more extensive and so more annoying, is that the monster goes from being a real, flesh and blood thing to an unreal, supernatural thing. Without alerting anyone to its presence, it's able to track the protagonist through thousands of miles of inhabited Europe, jumping into frame at just the right time. What, is it also capable of invisibility? Again, this is incredible and so weakens the story.

(I leave aside the premise of the plot: that a nineteenth century chemistry amateur could create or revive -- it's never fully described -- a human being from a mass of something. I'm willing to suspend disbelief that far for the purposes of the book. But not much farther).

The third issue is the whole -- tediously long -- passage outlining how the monster supposedly went from being a dumb beast with a blank slate of a mind to an eloquently thinking, speaking, reading person. It all comes out of a simplistic empiricist view of mind, where a creature can stand by and watch a family for months and months and by so doing learn everything it needs to carry on complex, literary conversations. It's wildly implausible, dated and tendentious.

The monster would also have to have been invisible and inaudible to have done this, but that gets us back to the former problem.

Further, I didn't find any of the main characters (except perhaps Walton at the very beginning and end, who is more or less a nonentity) to be really sympathetic. I'm sure I've heard people claim that the monster was sympathetic, but he's not. He makes his points: he's ugly, he's been maltreated and shunned, but he's also a vicious murderer. And Victor Frankenstein comes across hardly any better: by turns moody, inept and self loathing.

Perhaps the worst issue for me though was the style: nineteenth century romantic melodrama, with a lot of tears, gasps and fainting.

And it doesn't help that while I find the Faustian bargain a fruitful trope, I also rankle with the purer versions of it, of which Frankenstein is one. While there are dangers to power, and science gives power, to imply that knowledge is wholly evil is both factually wrong and also morally deeply questionable.

I'm sure others had a better view of it than I. I'd be interested to hear why.