I’m not quite halfway through Existence, by David Brin, but I’m enjoying it so much I have to start talking about it now. For one thing, it’s such a change from the Last Chronicles, which was a hard slog with a disappointing ending. (Still worth the journey, though.)
The novel is a standalone, not part of his Uplift Universe, but it apparently can be viewed as a kind of prequel to that reality. However: so far no alien contact, humanity is still on Earth, and computers are not conscious (but AI is very, very good). The year, as far as I can tell, seems to be in the 2040s or 2050s.
At heart, the novel’s theme is the Fermi Paradox; it examines many of the potential Great Filters that might end an intelligent species. But now an alien artifact has been found, a kind of message in a bottle that appears to contain a crowd of alien minds…
On the one hand, a main theme here is theories of consciousness. On the other hand, it’s been almost eight years blogging, and I’ve covered my views pretty well in numerous posts and comment threads. Our understanding of consciousness currently seems stuck pending new discoveries, either in answering hard questions, or in providing entirely new paths.
A while back I determined to step away from debates (even blogs) that center on topics with no resolution. Religion is a big one, but theories of mind is another. Your view depends on your axioms. Unless (or until) science provides objective answers, everyone is just guessing.
But it’s been three-and-a-half years, and, well,… I have some notes…
Judy, Judy, Judy!
I’ve been a fan of science fiction since the early 1960s. I was already an avid fan and ready audience for Lost in Space (1966–68; Judy was one of my earliest childhood crushes), It’s About Time (1966–67), and I was glued to the TV set enthralled when Kirk, Spock, and the rest, first boldly went in 1966.
By then I’d already consumed all I could of Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, along with Verne, Wells, and Burroughs (I didn’t discover Tolkien or Howard until high school a few years later).
Movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), and Forbidden Planet (1956), all had me avid for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
It’s been a whole lot of years, and a whole lot of science fiction, is my point.
The previous posts avoided spoilers and talked about HBO’s Westworld in general terms of its themes and characters — stuff that is apparent just from the trailers and basic setup. This post isn’t like that! Do not read this post unless you’ve seen all of season one!
Or unless you really like spoilers or just don’t care about the series. But if you do, you should trust me on this: You do not want this spoiled! It may even be all the better if you avoid any interweb discussion … the fans really did figure out some of the secrets before their big reveal. (On the other hand, the show’s creators have made it clear the truth was always in plain view. And so it was.)
Here are my questions and observations about the last episode and the season as a whole. I think we all have a few questions…
In the previous post I wrote about some of the general themes I saw in HBO’s Westworld. Such big picture topics are inherent in the basic description of the series — intelligent robots used as playthings — and don’t require spoiling plot points or character revelations. Everything I wrote about in the last post is part of the general context of the show.
In this post I want to look more closely at things that struck me in particular, but it requires exposing certain aspects of character or implementation that could count as spoilers if one is very strictly trying to avoid knowing anything about the show.
But if you have some idea about what’s going on, maybe just from trailers, this post shouldn’t spoil anything for you. I won’t give away any of the big secrets or reveals.
Way back in 1958, science fiction author and critic Theodore Sturgeon coined the term Sturgeon’s Revelation. Which is that “90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap.” This became known as Sturgeon’s Law while Theodore’s actual law (from a 1956 story) — that “nothing is always absolutely so” — is forgotten. (Philosopher Daniel Dennett expanded the Law to say that 90% of everything is crap!)
I’ve always found this applies especially to science fiction TV. And in this Anno Stella Bella era, there is a lot of SF TV, so naturally there is a lot of crap. (Honestly, I don’t even pay attention to the SyFy channel anymore.)
Happily: HBO’s Westworld … not crap! In fact, it’s a gem that offers many facets worthy of (non-spoiler) thought and discussion…
Blessed be the Force!
As long as I’ve been picking my own reading material, a huge fraction of it has science fiction. I’ve been doing that picking since about 1963-ish, so let’s just call it 50+ years. Up until around the mid 1990s, it would have been hard to name a science fiction book or movie I didn’t know (and in many cases, own).
But somewhere near the end of the last century science fiction became a full-fledged mass-produced commodity that through sheer over-exposure became dull and uninteresting. In a way, I blame George Lucas and Star Wars, so I split SF into two eras:
Before Lucas (B.L.) and Anno Stella Bella (ASB).
Last week we took a look at a simple computer software model of a human brain. (We discovered that it was big, requiring dozens of petabytes!) One goal of such models is replicating consciousness — a human mind. That can involve creating a (potentially superior) new mind or uploading an existing human mind (a very different goal).
Now that we’ve explored the basics of calculation, code (software), computers, and (computer software) models, we’re ready to explore what’s involved in attempting to model a (human) mind.
I’m dividing the possibilities into four basic levels.
Science Fiction — or rather Speculative Fiction — has the general quality that it contains all other fiction genres. There is mystery and detective science fiction. There is romance (and sexual) science fiction. Action? Horror? Psychological thriller? Drama and pathos? Allegory? Westerns? Science fiction has them all and more.
In a sense, SF is just a property that fiction can have. I’ve tried to explain what I think that property is. I also took a stab at separating science fiction from fantasy. Now that thread resumes to explore the idea of SF hardness.
But first we return to and start with…
Nearly all science fiction fans share a meme about the number 42. This meme comes from the Douglas Adams book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, one of the great “modern classics” (an apparent oxymoron, but it is just shorthand for ‘a recent work that is so good that someday it will be counted among the classics’). The book is the first in the “increasingly misnamed” trilogy that shares its name.
The trilogy is “increasingly misnamed” in that it now has five books. The joke is that, in science fiction, trilogies are as common as aliens, spaceships and time travel. In fact, depending on the context, there are a two trilogies that have earned the sobriquet, “The Trilogy.” (Issac Asimov‘s Foundation series in the context of pure SF; and, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien‘s Lord of the Rings books in the context of SF + fantasy.)
In any event, the number, 42, is the answer to the question.