Unquestioned Assumptions

Matthew Johnson lists out several Unquestioned Assumptions of Science Fiction. It’s an interesting list, though it suffers from the same problems all lists suffer from: I don’t agree with some of them, and I think there are some rather notable omissions. So let’s get started:

  • Bionics: Johnson is basically saying that we have seen no evidence that a superhuman bionic man/woman could be created. He mentions the increasingly sophisticated use of prosthetics, but is correct in noting that there are weak spots in that chain, and thus someone with a bionic arm won’t really be guaranteed any advantage unless they become one of them full-replacement cyborgs from Ghost in the Shell. I’ll admit that SF has probably gotten a lot of this wrong, but there’s much more to bionics than just superhuman beings. In a more general sense, bionics is about applying natural biological systems and methods to the engineering of electronic or mechanical technology. And in general, this is something we’ve already done a lot of (for instance, velcro and lots of flight related innovations derived from birds). Even in terms of medicine, stuff like cochlear implants are rapidly approaching the point where the deaf can hear better than unmodified humans (there are, of course, other drawbacks to this). I know nanotechnology is used as a form of magic in some movies, but there is a ton of potential there. And something like a Respirocyte could theoretically result in “superhuman” powers simply by increasing the amount of oxygen stored in red blood cells. So no, I don’t see the bionic man or woman anytime soon, but I don’t think it’s an unreasonable topic for SF.
  • Uploading, or cloning for that matter: Johnson notes that this isn’t impossible, just that they’re also not “any kind of ticket to immortality for the simple reason that neither an uploaded version of your mind nor a clone with all your memories is you: they are both copies of you”. This is an excellent point, and I do believe he’s very right. While I’m willing to go along with the ride in a book like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, I seriously doubt the subjective experience would be anything like what Scalzi describes (he handwaves the whole thing by explaining that consciousness is transferred, so it’s like a cut-and-paste, as oposed to a copy-and-paste – there’s nothing left in the old body. I can see how that sort of thing would be appealing to people though.) Interestingly, Scalzi proposes something completely different in The Android’s Dream, where the artificial consciousness is most definitely a copy (and we’re never entirely sure how good that copy really is). Anyway, Johnson does wonder why anyone would even want to do such a thing, and I do take a bit of an issue with that. I’ll expand on this later in the post, but interstellar space travel seems much more hospitable to some sort of electronic being than it does to biological lifeforms (again, more on this later). Another reason, assuming that the artificial construct can sustain creative thought, it might be nice to keep some folks around after they are gone. Maybe that would be a disaster – maybe Einstein would be a tremendous douchebag if he were still alive in mechanical form today, but it’s probably something worth trying. In the end, I certainly wouldn’t call this an unquestioned assumption. There exist lots of counter-examples, including the recently reviewd Diaspora, where artificial consciousness seems to have lots of advantages over biology (more on this in a bit).
  • Sensors: I completely agree with Johnson here. The non-trivial challenges to sensors are numerous and I don’t see them ever working the way they’re portrayed on tv or in movies (books tend to be better, but still).
  • Space Combat: Another one I mostly agree with, especially given the way it’s portrayed in most SF. This is a topic already covered on this blog (and others mentioned my post) years ago, so I’ll leave it at that. I do think there’s a fantastic movie to be made in the mold of The Enemy Below, but in space and with realistic physics (with some handwaving around the energy and motivational aspects of the whole thing – it could be entertaining, but it probably couldn’t be wholly accurate).
  • Sol III: Quite frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one before. The convention of naming the star, and then each planet around the star getting a number (i.e. the eighth planet orbiting the star Omicron Persei is referred to as Omicron Persei 8) does seem common, though I don’t find it all that troubling. I can see how it would be a pet peeve of someone though.

So that covers Johnson’s list. There are, of course, lots of omissions here. Perhaps I’ll cover those in a later post.

5 thoughts on “Unquestioned Assumptions”

  1. Cool stuff–

    Regarding bionics: Two things, actually.

    1. Have you heard of this guy? http://www.tomsguide.com/us/Bionic-Eye-Cyborg,news-3571.html

    Not super-human, necessarily, but certainly one step closer to what he’s talking about.

    2. There’s a great comic book called Global Frequency, that actually takes the whole “superhuman cyborg” thing to task, by having a cyborg and a non-enhanced human talking about it, and having the cyborg explain that you can’t just slap a cyborg arm on someone and have super strength, or the first time you tried to do something like toss a car out of the way, you’d rip the arm off the body and injure yourself in countless ways. So, anyone who wants the super strength deal has to get a full body upgrade.

    I don’t really understand why the Sol-III thing grates on him, though. I mean, I understand why it’d be annoying if you’ve got all these aliens who’ve never been to Earth calling it Sol 3, but if you’ve got Earthlings and aliens mixing it up, but is that the norm?

    As far as the uploading goes: I don’t know if I agree with him. Sure, it’s a copy, but if the point is to increase your existence, and you’re not forced to interact with the source of the copy, for all intents and purposes, you have increased the span of your existence. While it’s not technically “you” anymore, if it contains your thoughts and memories, and it is aware, continues to exist and form new experiences and memories… does it make a huge difference whether it’s a copy or the original? Does the original die or vanish? Sure. But, for the copy at least (and, in cases where it’s supposed to be an actual uploading of the mind, and not just a copy), “life” goes on.

    Also, as you say, I don’t think that this is a particularly unexamined assumption, anyway. Lots of stories and shows have examined what it means to be human, and whether your humanity part of your organic body or not.

  2. I had not seen that story, which I agree is pretty awesome. There’s a lot of interesting work going on in bionics though – brain/computer interfaces are seeming more and more feasible these days, for instance.

    With respect to the comic you mentions, yeah, that makes sense, and that’s what Johnson mentions in his article, so I think we’re all in agreement there.

    The Sol III thing is a bit weird because Sol means Sun, and sun is a generic term. Every planet presumably has a sun, right, so why would earth have a monopoly on the term “Sol”? This should be the Earthican system or something:p But yeah, it’s still a stretch (plus, I still don’t know of this happening so often in SF that it needs to be called out)…

    In terms of uploading, I wanted to talk a little more about Diaspora, because that story is told almost entirely from the perspective of an artificial consciousness, and it was really intriguing. For instance, at one point something happens and many unmodified human beings (i.e. meatspace humans) die, whilst the artificials all survive.

    I think what he’s getting at, though, is the subjective experience type of thing. Yeah, it might be nice to propagate yourself far and wide, but your subjective consciousness won’t be extended by that. That’s why I mentioned Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which I think has a great fantasy premise – when you get old, instead of dying, you can sign up for the army and they’ll transfer your consciousness into a young super-soldier body (actually, it could very accurately be described as a bionic body, heh). In the story, Scalzi writes a scene where someone’s consciousness is transferred from his old, frail body into a younger, genetically and mechanically modified version of his clone. He explicitly describes the subjective experience of looking at his clone, then kinda seeing both his clone and his old body (as his consciousness at the time was in both brains) and then, finally, seeing only his old body. I want to believe that sort of transfer is possible, as that actually would mean some sort of immortality, or at least a much longer lifespan (of course, OMW is military SF, and most of these folks don’t survive, but that’s a different discussion:p) There’s also something comforting about the concept that our consciousness is so complex and wholistic that it can’t be copied, it can only be transferred. However, it’s probably something of an uncomfortable truth that such a thing isn’t really possible. Then again, who the hell knows. Maybe a full copy of your mind in another body can lead to some sort of telepathy or some shit (yeah, talking out of my ass now, so I’ll stop).

    In any case, I don’t really see that happening, at least not to start. To start, we’ll get simple copying, and it will most likely be a lossy process as well. Even then, there are still lots of reasons to pursue this. First, you are still propagating yourself, even if it might be annoying to live with yourself. Second, living in an entirely artifical environment allows unprecedented control over that environment. Again, Diaspora is a pretty relevant example. If you want to learn about physics and whatnot, you could easily set up super-complex simulations, etc… and do all sorts of experiments that would have a nominal cost, since no actual property would be involved. I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist, but if everyone uploaded themselves into a digital workspace, there would be no need to drive to work everyday in meatspace, thus massively decreasing energy expenditure. Of course, no physical property would probably also mean that the concept of money would have to be radically rethought, which could lead to some nasty unintended consequences… and there I go again.

    Anywho, I plan to add a few assumptions to the list on Wednesday, including interstellar space travel (books are much better than movies/tv in that respect), aliens that are actually aliens (and not just humans with wacky bumps on their head), and monolithic planets (i.e. the ice moon of Hoth, the desert planet of Tatooine, the forest moon Endor, etc… Star Wars is particularly bad about this).

  3. Oh, Star Wars is tremendously bad about a ton of stuff–the sheer size of the Death Star, the concept of a planet that’s literally covered by a gigantic city, etc.

    The Sol III thing is a bit weird because Sol means Sun, and sun is a generic term. Every planet presumably has a sun, right, so why would earth have a monopoly on the term “Sol”? This should be the Earthican system or something:p But yeah, it’s still a stretch (plus, I still don’t know of this happening so often in SF that it needs to be called out)…

    I guess, but Earth just means “the ground”, right? And what are the chances that some other alien race is going to use the same word for their planet or sun? “Sol” means “sun”, but it’s also the name of our sun (as named by us, obviously). So, even if another race just used their words for “the ground” and “sun” for their planet and star, respectively, they’d end up with different names than ours. And, more importantly, anyway, is the naming of other planets using that system.

    Oh, wait… I just reread his thing… For some reason I thought his complaint was about the naming system in general, not just with regards to Earth, but to other star systems. Like you said “Omicron Persei 8”, but he’s just talking about Earth?


    I don’t know if I’ve *ever* seen a book talk about Sol 3.


    I think I’ll add Diaspora to my reading list.

  4. About cochlear implants, their ability to make people hear “better” than those without hearing impairments seems questionable to me. Maybe in discriminating a pure tone in certain ranges on a test or for individuals who get them very soon after birth or after suddenly losing hearing at a later age, like Rush Limbaugh. But, cochlear implants are not just big fancy hearing aids; it isn’t about amplifying sounds, but direct nerve stimulation. It still takes training for your brain to interpret sounds and especially speech. I’m not sure if that’s what you meant by the drawbacks or that if hearing better than human normal in and of itself would be a drawback.

    I think CI is probably the closest we might have to a bionic body part. However, I think that the major assumption with bionics or many other assumed technological advances in fiction or in real life is that it will always be better. In most cases, it’s just going to be different with a new list of bonuses and drawbacks than something else. And that is true of much of SF, although dystopias can sometimes have an inverse problem. Not all societies with great evils or ills are completely bad, either.

  5. Roy, Yeah, I’ve never really seen Sol 3 either, and I really don’t care much about it at this point:p

    The first chapter of Diaspora is online here. If you enjoy that, you’ll probably like the rest of it… I also wrote about it a couple times on the blog (see the 8/22 entry)…

    Sov, Well, you know me, I don’t think we really solve problems – we just trade one set of problems for another (in the hopes that the new problems are better than the old). I must have written something like that a hundred times here and on 4k. This is very similar to what you’re saying in your second paragraph.

    Also, I very much agree with how you apply that to dystopias. I’ve never really thought about it like that, but it’s a good way to articulate one reason why I tend to dislike dystopias.

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