Jun 05

Wolfram Alpha: The Sci-FI Writer’s Friend

Any discussion of Wolfram Alpha should start with Wolfram’s flagship and source of dominance in the universe: Mathematica®, upon which I imagine Alpha is built.  There are any number of categories of software that leave me amazed that such works of accomplishment can even spawn from the limited human mind: regular expression parsers, C++ compilers, natural language processing.  Voice recognition used to fall into that realm until I figured out how it works. But Mathematica sits at the apex, the crowning achievement of software engineering. It’s nothing at all like Matlab, which is plain old functional programming. It’s something else.  Several times during my software engineering career, I contemplated working there just to see the source code.

Wolfram Alpha, then, is something like a search engine, except instead of simply looking up words, it answers questions.

With the introductions out of the way, let’s go back a few decades to when I originally wrote A Hierarchy of Gods. I might have had Mathematica at the time, a story in itself, but there was nothing like Alpha. There may not even have been a search engine like Google or Duck Duck Go, and I had to pick a date in the latter 21st century where the line from Earth to Mars ran approximately opposite to the direction to Orion’s shield. I had to know how far apart Earth and Mars were at that time. I had to know how long it would take, considering special relativity, to go 32 light-years at a constant 0.8g acceleration, in both ship time and “real” time, with and without turn-around. I had my math cut out for me.

For the first part, I had to find out where Earth and Mars were currently and apply a lot of orbital mechanics and trigonometry to figure out all the angles until I found a date that placed them where I wanted, then apply some more math to calculate the distance distance between them, then some more to figure out travel time. Hours or days. The math, not the travel time. But that was then, and this is now. You need a right ascension to Mars of about 17 hours, so go to Wolfram Alpha here and start plugging in some dates:

location Mars May 15, 2074

Wolfram Alpha Output

Location of and distance to Mars on May 15, 2095, as given by Wolfram Alpha

And you get this (near right). Wow! Not only what I asked for, but I find out that the date is on a Tuesday, get a schematic of the entire solar system, a view as Mars appears in the sky, and rising at setting times in Luxemburg (that’s where it thinks I am). Mars is in Leo on May 15, 2074. No good, so I try again.  I don’t remember exactly what date I picked for the novel and don’t want to hunt for old notes, so let’s pretend it was May 15, 2095.

distance Earth Mars May 15, 2095

Again, I get more than I asked for (far right). I see that the distance is 79.57 million kilometers, coincidentally a near minimum, and as a bonus, I find out that the time for a radio signal to cross that distance is 4.424 minutes. I might need to know that. From here, it’s trivial to calculate constant-acceleration flight times, but to get to this point, I have consumed less like hours or days and more like two minutes. Oh, had there been Wolfram Alpha in the old days!

Unfortunately, Alpha could not have helped me with the calculus for my relativistic calculations. Alas! Not that it can’t do calculus, but it isn’t able to formulate a system that complicated it its digital head from the description you give it. It’s not as as smart yet as the Enterprise’s computer on Star Trek, but it’s getting there. Not to worry. When I first started this site, I wrote the relativistic equations down as an early post, not only for your edification, but so that I wouldn’t have to figure them out all over again.

And it’s not just astronomy.

In: Copernicium isotopes
Out: Unstable:
Cn-285 (40 min) | Cn-283 (4.17 min) | Cn-284 (31 s) | Cn-282 (30 s) | Cn-281 (10 s) | Cn-280 (1 s) | Cn-279 (100 ms) | 
Cn-278 (10 ms) | Cn-277 (1.1 ms)

Nor is it just for science fiction.  Suppose you’re writing an international spy thriller:

In: Population Cluj County Romania
Out: Cluj, Romania | 698929 people (3.3% of total for Romania) (2014 estimate) Romania | 
19.7 million people (world rank: 59th) (2017 estimate)

Or a murder mystery requiring forensics:

In: percentage phosphorus human body
Out: 1.1 mass%

Or a WWII submarine adventure:

In: 550 feet ocean depth
Out: depth | 550 feet temperature | 16.4 °C (degrees Celsius) salinity | 35 psu (practical salinity units)
overpressure | 16.89 bars = 16.67 atm (atmospheres) = 1689 kPa (kilopascals) density |
1.026 g/cm^3 (grams per cubic centimeter) = 64.08 lb/ft^3 (pounds per cubic foot) = 1026 kg/m^3 (kilograms per cubic meter)
sound speed | 1514 m/s (meters per second) = 4967 ft/s (feet per second) = 5450 km/h (kilometers per hour)
(assuming pressure-depth relation for standard ocean)

Whoa! Sound speed! That’s information we might need for sonar.

Of course, Alpha can’t do everything. Sometimes you get that dreaded response that it doesn’t know how to interpret your input (which I couldn’t make it do for the purpose of this post despite trying for several minutes), in which case you can rephrase your question and try again. There is a pro version that keeps tempting me that might be a little smarter; I  haven’t tried it.  Applications like Cartes du Ciel give you better sky charts, and Google Maps will give you the railroad travel time from Nizhny Novgorod to Vladivostok (about six days), but for the subjects it knows, Wolfram Alpha can seem like magic. Give it a try, and let us know what you think.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.duanevore.com/wolfram-alpha-the-sci-fi-writers-friend/

Jul 01

Final Horizon Approaches

Final Horizon original coverFinal Horizon has an unusual history. I had an idea for a space horror novel that I tentatively called Butterflies, a particularly and intentionally deceptive name. But I never wrote it because I didn’t see the point. Just another monster story. Just another alien planet.  It didn’t really have anything to say other than as satire on the state of Hollywood movie making these days: lots of action, void of content.

Then, as I’m a decent graphic artist, I thought I’d offer services as a cover designer. In the process, I threw together some example covers of novels that didn’t exist, and the one I show here is one of them. I picked the title Final Horizon because it sounded cool, and used an image of a girl I licensed from CanStockPhoto because it looked cool. The subtitle also meant nothing in particular, just a phrase to draw attention. Nothing fancy. After all, it was an example cover.

What happened next was an act of surrealism that is impossible to explain. I was just looking at the cover and there came one of those epiphanous moments when all of reality comes to a focus.  It all fit together. Butterflies, genetic engineering (two different ways), quantum computing, quantum reality, mind amplification, child abuse, all wrapped up in an elegant commentary on ruthless capitalism and unchecked political and military power. And like a tidy bow on top, the Singularity.

Not a singularity of the black hole variety, but one of the technological variety. Wikipedia defines a technological singularity as “the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence (ASI) will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.”  Indeed, the intelligence in Final Horizon is artificial, and it is super. But what if it comes with supermorality?  As the subtitle suggests, it’s not what people are expecting.

It takes place in the future (the best place for science fiction), mid-22nd century.  By then, we have succeeded in interfacing human minds to quantum computers, but with some unanticipated and unexplained phenomena accompanying it. Hyperpilots route starships safely through treacherous hypertunnels, linkers connect to other computers as an extension of their own minds, and scanners project their consciousness even to distant star systems. (Shhhh! There are more talents that the NSA, CIA, and Pentagon don’t like you knowing about.) And no one understands how any of that actually works. Then there is the unbelievable, half secret, nearly legendary, and completely mysterious story of Bucky and Katrina. The system works well, but it has three big caveats:

1. Unless you want to take off the top of a person’s skull to plant a couple of hundred wires in the brain and get substandard results for all your work, you have to use kids before they reach puberty. Kids can interface to PAIN helmets. Unexpected results.

2. Because there are few naturally born children who can pull it off and fewer parents who will let them, and because the interval between being trained and reaching puberty is only a year or two, you need to engineer formula kids whose biological and mental ages you can freeze when they’re at their peak. Unexpected results.

3. Because human society becomes completely dependent on formula kids, you make them docile and subservient, and because they are docile and subservient, they don’t cause trouble when you treat them like trash. They also lack the inconvenience of parents. Unexpected results.

In Final Horizon, natural-born Andrew Post and formula kid Macie 7 are chosen for a mission to a distant world where people mysteriously die. But it’s not until they reach their destination and find the butterflies that all hell breaks loose.

Hell that changes everything.

It’s a good story.  If I ever have a chance for a Hugo or Nebula award, this is it. It took a while for the plot details to come together, but they finally have, and it’s all of a thriller, a brain-twister, and a tear-jerker in one. I’m only nearing the end of the first draft, alas, so it’ll be a while before you’ll see the finished product.

The cover might change.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.duanevore.com/final-horizon-approaches/

Apr 19

A Word on Canonicity

Canonicity may be the most important thing.

dictionary.com defines “canon”, as relevant to this post:

3. the body of rules, principles, or standards accepted as axiomatic and universally binding in a field of study or art.

The important qualification here is that in any field, in order to be canon, it has to be consistent with itself. If one place says James T. Kirk was born in Iowa and other place says he was born on Vulcan, that can’t be canon.

That said, let me point out that the eighth Doctor doesn’t exist. He never did and he never will. “Wait!” shout Whovians from around the globe. “Yes, he does! He was played by Paul McGann.”

Before you Whovians get too bent out of shape, you should know that I’m one of you. The first companion I really, really liked was Zoe Heriot. You remember her, don’t you? My favorite T-shirt reads, “Keep calm and don’t blink”. You know what that’s about, of course. “Blink” vies for being the best episode ever written, right up there with “The Brain of Morbius” and “Enlightenment”.  But none of that makes the eighth Doctor exist.

It’s all about canonicity, and the hypothetical eighth Doctor breaks it.

You see, I’m something most Whovians aren’t: a writer. With an estimated four million words under my belt (more than a million are available on Amazon), I have some experience locating and fixing plot holes, which are what you call broken canonicity on a smaller scale. Such as when I had Erik and Jaxidreshny hiking for days through the forest while she was carrying an instrument that could transport them light-years. After a while you get sensitive to those things. Don’t worry, that issue with Erik and Jaxidreshny is long since fixed.

Fans are usually pretty good at finding such holes, such as, “Why didn’t the Eagles just fly them to Mount Doom?” They usually can work out some kind of explanation to cover the hole, but it remains a good question. There even exists an argument that such was exactly what Gandalf told them to do in Moria when he said, “Fly, you fools!” But even dredging out those inconsistencies, fans are eager to accept everything they see without serious questions. After all, that’s the way it happened in the fictional world.

Doing so is quite a bit harder for a writer, who spends thousands of hours trying to get rid of exactly those issues. You can’t spend decades thinking about personalities, motives, emotions, what works and what doesn’t, then blindly accept what doesn’t work.

There are certain things you just don’t do. You don’t put Darth Vader in pink tights and a tutu unless you’re doing parody. You don’t have Captain Kirk totally screw up, destroying himself along with the Enterprise and ending the series prematurely. You don’t have Superman raping little girls. You don’t turn the interior of the TARDIS from a clean, functional design to a ghastly trash heap (which, unfortunately, they kept for the series reboot). You don’t suddenly make him half human when for 26 seasons he was faithfully and totally a Time Lord. You don’t bring back the Master as a creeping glob of snot. You don’t have a protagonist who could virtually ignore women he traveled the universe with suddenly go all goo-goo over a woman he just met. (What heterosexual male wouldn’t notice Zoe Heriot?)

To make matters worse, they started the new series with a “you don’t”. The Time Lords were all destroyed? Now, that’s news! How do you suppose that happened? Did all those Time Lords scattered throughout history just decide to return to Gallifrey at a certain moment in time so they could all conveniently be wiped out? It makes no sense! It is logically inconsistent with the 26 prior seasons. These aren’t Pacific Islanders in the 1800s; these are Time Lords. That may be the biggest Doctor Who gaffe of them all.

Harry and Hermione — canonicity

A piece by HPHarmioneF101 that I found on Fanpop, proof that J. K. Rowling and I are not the only ones who understand.

But Doctor Who is not what keeps me up at night grieving for the future of all that is sane. What does is the greatest canonicity busting faux pas ever to take place in the fictional world: Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.

I rooted for Harry and Hermione as a couple from early in the first movie, and when I saw it going the wrong way in Goblet of Fire, I lapsed into denial and insisted it couldn’t be so. Reading the latter books nearly drove me into depression, and it had nothing to do with the fact that “Hermione Weasley” just sounds terrible. If you keep up on Harry Potter at all, you’ll know that Rowling later confessed to having made a mistake putting Ron and Hermione together:

“I wrote the Hermione/Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That’s how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” she adds. “I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I’m absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility. Am I breaking people’s hearts by saying this? I hope not.”

No, duh! But she’s a writer; she’d have to have noticed eventually. Attend to her comment, “…not for reasons of credibility.” She knows the Ron/Hermione hookup is not credible. It didn’t surprise me she made that admission, but it surprised me it took her so long. Erik and Jaxidreshny, whom I mentioned above, aren’t even the same species, come from worlds 117 million light-years apart, and have completely different societal structures and understanding of sex, yet they’re a more believable match than Ron and Hermione. Even if the ill-fated wizards made it to their vows, they never would have had children because they’d be casting Avada Kedavra at each other before they ever made it to bed. I’m surprised Rupert Grint and Emma Watson could play romantic scenes between them with straight faces. I knew it was Harry and Hermione from the moment they met on the train; it’s unfortunate the writer didn’t until it was too late.

A lot of fans exploded in claims of heresy over this, and some of them wrote articles picking through the interview to find a way to believe she didn’t really mean what she said. “Oh, Ron and Hermione will be all right with some counseling.” Like hell, they will! I’ve done some counseling. The incompatibility between them is not a matter of learned behavior, of anything that would benefit from psychoanalysis. It’s a basic clash between their personalities, and no amount of counseling is going to change that.

Ron and Luna would have worked; they’re compatibly loopy. Ginny would have worked with either Neville or Dean.

So all this leaves me with a problem. If I accept the nonsensical parts as written, I can’t really enjoy the story. Rule number one in fiction: don’t break the suspension of disbelief. And baby, the cases I’ve mentioned break it big time, more than fourth wall gags. They scream with the volume of Krakatoa that this is a STORY and someone flubbed the plot. In order to enjoy it, to pretend it’s real, to immerse myself in it, I have to mentally edit out the parts that don’t add up and where necessary replace them with something that does. That scene on the Hogwarts Express platform at the end of Deathly Hallows had to have arisen from Hermione (Harry’s wife) and Luna (Ron’s wife) taking polyjuice potion as a practical joke on their husbands, which makes a lot more sense than Ron and Hermione discovering mutual tolerance. I have to omit the eighth Doctor and ignore that nonsense about the Time Lords being destroyed. Not to do so ruins everything for me because they demolish the credibility of the story line.

It’s more than just “I wouldn’t have written it that way”. Under that category is that I would have had Draco suffer more serious consequences from his death-eating days, and I probably would have hooked him up with Pansy if I hadn’t had Hermione kill him in battle. I would have had Voldemort hide his horcruxes in more secure locations, such as the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Those details don’t constitute gaping plot holes, so they’re not that big a deal. Putting Ron and Hermione together is. You can’t carefully develop their personalities over the course of seven volumes and finish it up with, “But let’s forget all that. It was a joke.”

So I’m just wondering. Is anyone else compelled to fix broken plots in their mind to avoid terminal insanity?

Yikes! I wonder if anyone has done that with any of my works!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.duanevore.com/a-word-on-canonicity/

Jan 24

Where is The Humanity Experiment?

The Humanity Experiment was supposed to be out in 2016, wasn’t it?  And this is 2017 already, isn’t it?  What happened?

Well, aside from the usual delays that come about from the vagaries of real life, where there is a lot going on, there is a lot going on in the story.  Heck, we have matter simulations, reality experiments, a thought transducer, precognition and telepathy, an evil galactic empire (there’s always an evil galactic empire), third- and fifth-order wands, bizarre aliens, saturation plasma bombing, ancient artifacts with mysteries to go with them, inter-dimensional transport, unseen forces, an impossible entity called Companion, synthetic human consciousness, torture, intergalactic teleportation, battleships, traitors, ghosts, near-death experiences, jimimbas, children who appear and disappear, the Plekton Key, and love. But all that’s easy.

When people fall in love, however, it often leads to sex. That, normall, is pretty easy, too. I don’t write much sex because by itself it doesn’t make for much of a story, and when it does make a story, it’s not my kind of story. I have zero interest in reading Fifty Shades of Grey, so it’s not likely I would have ever written it. Still, I’ve known since my initial conception of the series that this would be the book with most of the sex in it.

pot-pourriThe inter-species romance in A Hierarchy of Gods gave me no trouble because the Trarsani, for all their differences, see love and sex pretty much the same way humans do, so once you overcome any anatomical challenges, it’s smooth sailing. But the Kyattoni…. Hold onto your ever-loving hat! Here we have a race who have multiple sexual partners but are lifetime monogamous, who don’t clearly distinguish between adult and child because they have no life event matching puberty, who have multiple kinds of orgasms, whose names are broken down to signal different combinations of intimacy and pregnancy. We have Erik and Jaxidreshny, but we also have Jaxidreshny’s kid sister Triknikanthy, which makes Erik and Triknikanthy girl-linked bond-siblings, and that’s a whole adventure in itself. When a human says, “it’s complicated”, they’re usually trying to get out of something. To a Kyattoni, it really is complicated. And for a human trying to understand it…. Poor guy!  The ethics Erik learned growing up human are at best useless, and sometimes harmful.

On the other hand, it’s not just the sex. As Triknikanthy explains,

“…but even so it’s not really about the sex.  Well, it is, but….  Most TKK species can separate sex from love.”  She looked into his eyes for a moment in a strange, alien kind of union that transmitted messages he couldn’t understand.  “We can’t.”

Love is a paraphysical quantity, Jaxidreshny tells him, constant under a certain set of philosophical transforms, something real, not just an experience. Love is love across the universe, but Kyattoni bond-love turns up the gain on that to superhuman levels. There is an awful lot for the lovers to work out between them as they come to understand each other, and as the writer, I have to work all that out too.

Yes, The Humanity Experiment is written. It has been for a few years. Over those years it has been through more revision passes than I can keep count of. I don’t want it to be merely written, I want it written right. I have page after page after page of documentation from anatomical drawings to sexual terminology, from psychobiology to social structures, and I’m still not confident I have all the loose ends accounted for. I hate loose ends. I’ve run across inter-species sex before in science fiction, but most of it stops at “That’s exotic!” Oh, the angle is different and she has too many teeth (I forget what book that was), but no investigation into what happens when fundamental biology, psychology, and culture were never intended to mesh. Sarek and Amanda have it easy by comparison.

But never fear; I’m still working on it. As you can see, I’ve done more than a little 3D modelling and composition. It might be a little late, but I’m hoping the wait is worth it.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.duanevore.com/where-is-the-humanity-experiment/

Jan 23

Suppose You’re Not You

There have been a lot of jokes based upon the old expression, “I’m not myself today”. If your questionable identity should be any more than simply an adage, you would have to ask, then, who you actually are. Likewise, the idea has been the springboard for a lot of stories. Off the top of my head, I can think of several episodes of The Twilight Zone from the 1960s that took advantage of the possibility: “A world of Difference”, “Mirror Image”, “Person or Persons Unknown”, “The Four of Us Are Dying”, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”, “Death Ship”. There are probably more, but my memory is finite. And I can think of an episode of the The Outer Limits (the original; I was never crazy about the HBO clone except for a couple of episodes), not where someone doesn’t know who he is, but where no one else does: “One Hundred Days of the Dragon”, and one where two people exchanged minds: “The Human Factor”. Identity is pretty flexible in the world of speculative fiction.

If you’re not yourself, then there are only so many options. You’re somebody else. Somebody else is you. You’re dead and don’t know it (“Death Ship”). You’re a duplicate of the original without knowing it. And I suppose possibilities with no real explanation, like “Mirror Image”. Welcome to the world of cybertech, where we have options that didn’t exist during the ’60s: you’re a computer simulation (think “Matrix”) or a computer game character (think any of dozens of anime). In fact, scientists and philosophers are seriously considering the possibility that we are computer simulations.

But wait, the possibilities are not exhausted yet. I used this quote from Korvoros in another post of this series dedicated to teleportation, but let me repeat it here:

“So let’s proceed to utter insanity,” she continued. “If the information is all that’s important, suppose that two receiving stations happened to pick up the signal and each one makes a new instance of you. Which would be the real one? Or would either of them really be you? You could be dead and they could be fakes that no one could tell from the original because all the memories are duplicated too.”

Little girlsSo you haven’t traveled by teleporter lately? Well, you’re not off the hook. Suppose that every time you have even the slightest impure thought, your soul is immediately sent to hell, whereupon another soul with all your memories immediately takes its place. You could be 270,000th “you”, just waiting for that impure thought to send you away. Since all the memories are duplicated, how could you possibly know? Since you’re exactly the same, how could anyone else possibly know? Maybe the impure thought isn’t necessary. Maybe we’re all rebooted once a second regardless of what passes through our minds and our “true” identity lasts no longer than that.

One of my short stories that I haven’t finished involves a police investigator who is actually one of a series of robots created by other robots to replace living people, only a defect in the manufacturing left the first run not knowing they were duplicates.

So you woke up this morning with the smug assumption that you are the same person you were last night. You can’t be so sure of that, can you? That person could be gone forever.

From this point, let your mind wander. Is there some other way you might not be you? Some way that I’ve overlooked? If so, I’d be interested to hear about it.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.duanevore.com/suppose-y/

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