Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Sincere Sense

In 2008, when SF Worldcon was held in Denver, probably one of the best panels was "Believers versus Skeptics." Arrayed were leading lights of the skeptical world like Michael Shermer against notorious believers like Patrick Burns. The believers tried to lead off by redefining the word "skeptic," but soon discovered they were talking to a hostile room, and quickly found themselves busy retrenching their position. They weren't really believers in the paranormal. They were just regular scientists who thought that there might be alternative explanations to account for bumps in the night or vague voices in the static, or so they said. Just why there needed to be alternative explanations, they couldn't answer.

The point was, of course, that the basic paradigm of science is that everything there is in this universe is matter and energy, and we can always measure its existence. As Lord Kelvin said, if you can't measure it, then it didn't happen.

But suppose there is something out there that we can't measure for some reason. Dark matter sure turned out to be difficult to find. We can see its effects on galaxies out in space. Large enough clumps of it distort space enough to bend the light shining from galaxies behind it. It's massive enough to account for most of the matter in the universe. But we haven't been able to find it in the laboratory, in spite of a couple of decades of efforts and hundreds of millions of dollars spent. Can we even imagine what something might be that none of our instruments have so far been able to detect?

Nancy Kress refers to Helen Keller's experience as a blind person in her story Steal across the Sky. Can a blind person even imagine such a thing as light? In Nancy Kress's story aliens announce themselves to all the Earth. They're the Atoners, and they're looking for some volunteers to witness to a crime the Atoners committed against humanity. Eventually six crews of three volunteers each are assembled and go out among the stars to visit twelve human colonies, people the Atoners kidnapped from Earth about 10,000 years ago. They stay long enough to discover the incredible: once upon a time people could see the spirits of the recently dead, and even were able to talk to them. The Atoners then admit that in fact that was the situation. When these people were kidnapped, those who remained behind on Earth were sterilized, all, except for a few whose genes had been modified to take away their ability to see spirits.

Kress actually takes pains to present evidence to suggest that such a thing would be scientifically plausible. This is, after all, not a ghost story. The news has put people on Earth into an interesting position. People who already believe in spirits might have their faith confirmed. Some believe that this apparently scientific confirmation takes away from the miracle of life after death, and some even believe the Atoners represent the devil. Scientists are considerably more skeptical, and believe that the witnesses were somehow fooled by the Atoners.

I found the story to be well written. Kress uses an earnest tone throughout, and her story kept me interested in what would happen next, and I was definitely guessing until the very end which direction the story would take.

But I was left holding the bag.

Instead of dealing with the scientific consequences of being able to contact spirits, Kress allows the story to devolve into a kind of intrigue. Her characters get involved in a number of mostly unexplained intrigues, and in the end the reader is confronted with the Atoners' final action pretty much as a fait accomplis. I've run into those kinds of stories before. It's the sort of story that makes you think that the author got a call from her editor, demanding a finished manuscript, so she added a few more sentences and sent it off.

I still think it's worth reading, since it discusses an interesting aspect of the problem of what we know, and how we know it. But I think it could have been better.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

It's a Joke, Son

War is serious business. War between worlds has to be that much more serious. When considered in the science fictional context, of mankind arrayed against non-humankind, many authors have taken a cut at the idea, starting, of course, with the ur-War-of-the-Worlds story by H. G. Wells, published in 1898. Wells saw mankind as a victim of circumstance. Our position was precarious, not in any way privileged. There was no deity to protect us - in fact, Wells makes it a point to dismiss divine intervention. In the end what saves humanity is the lowly bacterium. Mankind was saved not by providence but by nature.

James Tiptree's classic The Screwfly Solution (1977, written as Racoona Sheldon), turns the tables. Humanity is not saved. Instead, the alien invaders devise a bio weapon that causes men to violently turn on women when it infects them.

Pournelle and Niven tell the story in a different light in their novel Footfall (1985). The enemy comes in the shape of anthropoid elephants who are unprepared for the possibility that they might be defeated. Their technology appears to be found or stolen, and their incomplete understanding dooms them in the end when the much more inventive humans unexpectedly leap out of their gravity well to attack them in orbit.

This idea of manifest destiny is actually fairly common in the upbeat strains of SF. Harry Turtledove uses it in his stories starting with In the Balance (1994). In that story the invading aliens are much more conversant with the issues that arise from conquering other alien beings, but they aren't counting on the humans' amazing inventiveness. As in Footfall these stories suggest reasons for human success rooted in human nature.

David Brin's Uplift War stories (starting with Sundiver, 1980), also suggest a manifest destiny for us. All other aliens in the universe seem to have been produced by uplift, the intervention in their species' evolution by already advanced beings. Only humans appear to have evolved entirely on their own. Brin is clearly having some fun at the expense of proponents of intelligent design.

Which brings me to one of the latest stories about war between mankind and alien invaders. David Weber's story Out of the Dark (2010) starts out ordinary enough. Aliens with advanced technology want to conquer the Earth. To their surprise they discover, upon returning some 600 years after the initial survey, that humans have advanced to our present stage, with access to computers and nuclear power: two or even three times faster than any other species they know of. Even though their charter for colonization would exclude a technologically advanced culture, they decide to proceed, hoping that human inventiveness will become an asset to their empire. They start by dropping large rocks from space on all human capitals, military installations, and surface fleet. However, humanity refuses to submit. Weber describes a struggle between an increasingly incredulous alien force and their desperate and furious human opponents. Our warlike nature makes us dangerous and inventive when we feel cornered and have nothing left to lose. Humans decimate the alien invaders, destroying large sections of their military in pitched battles, and much more in a running guerilla war.

But in the end, none of that appears to be enough. Defeat seems imminent. The aliens have realized that they cannot defeat mankind by conventional means, and plan to release a bio weapon to destroy all of us. What are you going to do now, wise guys?

Well, we send in our vampires, of course.

You heard me right. Vampires, led by the original badass himself, Dracula. It apparently isn't at all difficult for a vampire to penetrate military bases secured with electrified fences and remote sensors and trained warriors armed with the latest in alien killing technology. They can't be killed by ordinary weapon fire, in any case. Once inside, the vampires can kill all of the aliens. Then they go to the next base and do it again. Eventually the aliens try running away, and the vampires hold on to the outside of the fleeing shuttles and destroy the space fleet, as well. Now the vampires are on their way to punish the rest of the galaxy for the way they treated us humans.

That has to be joke, right? But, sadly, the story shows no sign of campiness. Weber's description of the violence is in all cases earnest, going into pornographic detail on the cost and capabilities of every damn piece of weaponry used in his story. This is a guy who knows his killing machinery inside and out, and he isn't at all embarrassed about sharing all of that in excruciating detail. I found myself skimming past many pages, trying to get past the loving descriptions of this or that hardware to where the story actually took up again. I was fully prepared for any kind of development, including a Screwfly Solution type ending.

But I wasn't prepared for vampires.

Anyway, if you like your military conflicts you might just enjoy a good part of this story. I didn't. The bits that I did enjoy were few and far between, and the vampires, they, well, let's say they surprised me.

Is this all that Meyers woman's fault?