ceteris paribus…

Neither the future nor science fiction should frighten us. Both may raise questions; any lack of preparedness to face them is where fear should lie. Given that we pride ourselves on our intellect relative to every other form of life on the planet – what is there actually to fear?

One of humanity’s greatest powers, with due respect to the domestication of fire and the worthy and opposable thumb, is our capacity to craft definitions. We apply this ability even to ourselves. How we define ourselves is, in fact, one of our obsessions.

In terms of sci fi there are two forces that potentially imperil our comforting view of we humans: augmentation – either by prosthetic or genetic means. During the mid- to late 1980s the first of these defined a large part of cyberpunk fiction and gaming. Robots and cyborgs, however, are older concepts.

Hephaestus in Greek mythology and Ilmarinen of Finnish folklore are both said to have created artificial people. In the first case, these inventions were vessels for some of the aspects humans celebrate about themselves – most notably intellect and wisdom. The Scandinavian example presents a being deficient in what we seek from others. Most fictional androids fall into this latter category and that reflects our concern in defending our definition of being human.

There are nervous jokes made about potential robot overlords. Artificial intelligence is very rarely portrayed as anything but a cause for suspicion. Genetic engineering does not fare better and there are more examples from history to explain why. The idea of using an understanding of DNA to improve humanity is about a century old. Within a generation of the suggestion eugenics earned a bad name. It still summons overlords of a different sort and often paints the consequences as grim. Even basic cloning gives some qualms.

We want to be better creatures and we’re impatient with evolution. At the same time we’re afraid of what may result from taking shortcuts. Cyberpunk, the roleplaying game by R. Talsorian Games, warned of cyberpsychosis and marked the upper limit for augmentation by a loss of Humanity Points. Arthur C. Clarke warned us in 2001 (technically beginning in 1948 and revisited twenty years later) that AI can go dangerously, artificially insane far faster than any biological mind.

About two months ago, I asked a number of friends what aspects of animal DNA they would want woven into their own genetic code. In science fiction terms this is part of what’s known as wetware. The answers boil down to a few categories.

Improve what works well. A more efficient metabolism and better respiration system would be key examples. The most preferred feature from this set was the regeneration of lost limbs and damaged organs.

Increase what is not adequate. The wish to be stronger, faster, and more durable is not exclusive to professional athletes. Many answers here pertained to making our sense of sight far better than it is now, up to and including the ability to see infrared and ultraviolet light. None of the other four faculties called to mind by the word “sense” were among the answers although both proprioception and equilibrium were found to be a bit lacking.

Add cool new features. Without any apparent concern for sensory overload, some would like to sense electric fields, as can sharks and bees. The core of what it means to be a homing pigeon (and to any human who doesn’t want to rely on maps or GPS) depends on magnetoreception and this was also a desired acquisition.

Establish a better perimeter. The chameleon’s talent for camouflage, the signature of the electric eel, and all venomous/poisonous creatures were also envied along with claws and fangs.

It seems odd that no one mentioned immunity to toxins or disease. Also absent was mention of the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii). And, while plants were left out of the initial question, no one went outside the envelope to suggest something from that kingdom.

Cyberpunk’s Chromebook series offered about 400 pages of comparable features and benefits from the technology-based potential sources of human modification.

RememberIn another century, we would probably recognize humans by our definition of the species and culture. That’s only five generations from now — the great great grandchildren of Jane and John Q. Public. People from one millennium past are, all things considered, not that different from us. Would cyber- and/or wetware actually change the contents or just the packing material?

Until innovation extends a lifespan along with the capacity to find an answer, I’ll offer this with hope: We may define ourselves as human so long as we remember to do so.


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sententiae antiquae…

An admission of a bias in thinking due to the near-total immersion in Ancient Greek mythology and philosophy must be made. There is the concept of (Abraham) Maslow’s hammer, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Recently, the question arose in two parts of whether writers in this modern zeitgeist are consciously using elements of the philosophy of Plato (et alia) in their works of fiction. Parallels seem strongly evident; are they always intentional? Are the tropes of ancient thought strong and pervasive enough that even those who are not aware of their origins – or seeking them out – are almost destined to use them?

George Lucas is known to have based Star Wars on his study of Joseph Campbell’s work, which was in turn a summary of many others, Plato included. Similarly, Lana and Andy Wachowski may have based their Matrix (at least, in part) on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

IDEA

The reimagining of Battlestar Galactica (2003-2012) probably could not avoid using Greek myth as source material with many of the characters named after the Olympians. BSG also paralleled Ecclesiastes 1:9 and Peter Pan when Six and President Laura Roslin (among several others) presented variations of “All of this has happened before, and it all will happen again.” The verse in the Bible goes on to postulate “…and there is no new thing under the Sun.” – an idea about which I’ve previously railed.

The past week’s musing has given me a series of ideas that may cause me to adjust my perspective for A Song Heard in the Future, my novel-in-progress set 3.5 millennia ago.

Some scholars of myth believe that Teiresias was a well-known character before he was written into the tragedies of nearly all kings of Thebes, including the trilogy of Oedipus’ life. Of the dozen or so tales that include Teiresias and still exist only a small percentage of them could be said to feature him as the main character.

Hesiod is said to have written about the famous seer almost 2700 years ago but that story has been lost. At roughly the same time Homer also included Teiresias but as a shade in the Asphodel Meadows neighborhood of Hades. The intent in Song is giving Teiresias back the lost story of his life.

If an author’s themes are preordained, if there truly is nothing new, the task at hand is to make the best of it. To craft the best from it. If Song is reimagined based on last week, there’s a very good chance the book will be better. Oddly, it will also take a few steps closer to the reason for researching Teiresias in the first place. Psychic abilities have always fascinated me whether they exist or not. (And I blame Spock for it.)

A leap to someone in Ancient Greece who could see the future seems obvious but the road was not quite that direct. During my middle school years, I sometimes would construct fantasy timelines of reincarnations I might have had. My birthday was in mid-December of 1964; who died earlier that year that I might have been? And who just prior to their date of death? And so on… This fabrication of an uninterrupted line of past lives would extend as far as my knowledge of history would permit.

Something very like this led to Teiresias but I allowed the tracking and musing to move into legend and then myth, as records grew less authoritative. To my mind, the jury is still out on the details of reincarnation. I’m not sure we can be certain who we may once have been. Here the innumerable ex-Cleopatras have to be discounted.

In psychical research there is a term “anomalous cognition” that is meant to describe having knowledge without learning it. The best example of this may be the understanding some aspect of a dream without the establishing that would be required if the same plot were presented in fiction. Psychic studies go beyond that point but it means knowledge without a source or explanation. There had to be a word for the idea that we can retain knowledge from past lives, if any.

In the field of psychology (if I have this right), anomalous cognition is used to describe specific exaggerated reactions. As both science and paranormal research employ AC and with neither usage hitting the nail on the head, there had to be a more precise word. With all due respect to reverse dictionaries, they nearly always far short. Finding a new word is simple. Read more. Talk to smart people. Finding an extant but unknown word that precisely fits a specific concept is not so easy.

Just yesterday, while exploring Plato’s ideas, I discovered the word anamnesis. This is precisely what I find fascinating in anomalous cognition while not preferring the term. What you knew in a past life is something your education may serve to remind you of that past knowledge.

Plato suggested that we are reincarnated based on what we know. Ultimately, aisa (“αἶσα” meaning “destiny”) doesn’t matter in our thinking and work. It is how we think and work that remains our own.

Maybe there is nothing new under the Sun. When Song is published, however, I’ll invite you to curl up against a tree and read it in sunlight. If it surprises you – that may disprove predestination. If not, welcome back.


cogito ergo hmm…

Is it safe to assume most authors of fiction hold J. R. R. Tolkien in high esteem? I must admit that, to an extent, he’s something of a guiding star. I admire the thoroughness of his work and its success and apparent timelessness.

During the research process there are, of course, moments of discovery. Some data is deliberately sought. Then there are unanticipated details that, once turned up, seem essential to the story. I do not intend to take a decade to develop any of the worlds for which I’ve novels in progress; in that respect, Mr. Tolkien couldn’t be more remote were he a constellation. Aiming for comprehensive seems sufficient. Trying for exhaustive can interfere with the actual writing.

Within the past fortnight I’ve made some discoveries that may, in fact, prove vital in A Song Heard in the Future. The first concerns what seems to be everyone’s favorite constellation: Orion. In Greek mythology he was a giant, mentioned in both of Homer‘s most famous works.

While most of Song plays out over three or four generations, I felt it was important to thread as much of mythology through it as served the story. Some of the characters are able trace their ancestry back to survivors of The Flood (≈1440 BC, by my estimation, with Deucalion in the place of Noah); this becomes an important vantage point they have on themselves and their roles. Others sprang up from the earth in the aftermath of that cataclysm. For their descendants, having an autochthonous claim as a birthright, is equally momentous. According to the family trees I’ve developed in conjunction with the chronology, all of the featured characters would have known Orion only as a constellation. He’d have died before they were born.

Orion-constellationOrion being mentioned this way seemed right. It helps me feel that the characters live in the world about which I’ve been writing. This unexpected realization also seemed to build similarity between those characters and the readers. They’d be looking at the same stars, calling many by the same names. For Teiresias, the constellation now holds a special significance.

It isn’t a surprise to me that I would find a way to include astronomy in some capacity. The subject has fascinated me – since before my love of Star Trek – and only enhanced by it. What was unforeseen was finding a pair of characters that served to buttress the narrative and share a name. In the timeline, I have them separated by about 180 years – one before The Flood and the other at about the time of the Trojan War (≈1260–1180 BC, according to Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann). Genealogically, the younger character could claim the Antediluvian as tritavia†. This seemed designed as part of the story as if penned – almost literally – at the time Song ends (perhaps by Homer, Sappho, or Aesop).

The past two weeks provided a coming full circle sense with Song. I’m certain that more writing will create more unexpected moments of epiphany. These two gave me a smile. I welcome more.


great great great great grandmother