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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Billy Goat's Latest Readings

I can see spring on the horizon, but every year about this time I feel like it's just around the corner, only to be disappointed that the warm weather is taking so long to get here. Baby Gruff is about eight months old now, and he likes to get himself into trouble. I read to him most nights, things like Ten Apples up on Top and Are You My Mother? However, he's not a fan, yet. Instead, he prefers to fall face-forward off the couch (Don't call protective services on me! I'm only joking! Really, he mostly tries to smack the book out of my hand, gets bored, and then tries to squirm away or cries).

Later, when he finally goes to sleep, I get to read according to my own interests. So far, I've gotten myself mired deep into a couple of epic series, while tasting something lighter now and again.

The Dark Tower

I just finished The Wastelands, the third book in Stephen King's The Dark Tower series. It's a very interesting series, and I've been driven to not just read it, but also to read about it, scrolling through Wikipedia and Amazon, and flirting with the idea of buying the newish The Gunslinger Born graphic novel. I was surprised to see that the series had connections to so many other of King's works, with shared characters and locations. It's made me wonder how many other authors self-reference as much as King seems to. I may have to write an article about it.

A Song of Ice and Fire

I've just started reading the first book of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Game of Thrones. Previous to reading it, I'd formed a few of preconceived notions about it, most of them negative, and probably unfair. Some came about because the books seem to share some features with Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series: Formulaic names (see pic), a long sequence of tomes in need of an end (to be fair, TWoT has 11 books so far, and ASoIaF has only 4). Also, I once read a review of one of my favorite books (Shadow & Claw by Gene Wolfe) on by someone who trashed it and promoted A Song of Ice and Fire as clearly superior. This person came off badly. He came off so badly that I referenced him in my article How Not to Write an Review, and this helped foster in me the notion that the series was beneath me. Then, I had the bad sense to go to and find unfriendly reviews of the series to reaffirm my belief. Yeah, I know that makes me a bad goat. Maybe you can write an article about me titled, "How Not to Read Reviews."

So, what changed my mind? Well, Mrs. Gruff is a big reader of the Penny Arcade forums, and she pointed me to a PA thread filled with praise for the series. I read the thread and found much thoughtful commentary, as well as some readers with similar tastes to mine. After reading this, and remembering that there were lots of positive reviews on Amazon that day I went a-hunting, I decided that I should at least give the series a fair shake. The fact that Mrs. Gruff would occasionally remind me of it helped a lot, too, especially how she kept pointing out to me that as a self-proclaimed recommender of books, I shouldn't be avoiding an industry hit as big as A Song of Ice and Fire. She was right: It would be like purposefully avoiding Harry Potter. So here I am, reading it, ready to criticize, but also ready to praise. I'm only about 50 pages in, but so far, A Game of Thrones is good. It's not nearly as overly descriptive as Jordan's work, and it seems to have a rich history, interesting characters, and an immersive style.

The Absolute Sandman

I received Neil Gaiman's The Absolute Sandman, Vol 1 for Christmas, and I've read a few pages. It's a huge graphic novel, and it has a beautiful cover. Flipping through the book, I was not very impressed with the artwork, but now that I've looked closer, I see that it is very detailed and evocative, even if the style is scratchy. I haven't gotten far enough to even talk about the story, however.

Christmas Reads and The Twits (and my Deprived Childhood)

Over Christmas vacation, I also had a chance to reread The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, which really got me into the spirit of the holiday. Mrs. Gruff also forced me to read Roald Dahl's The Twits from her childhood collection of books, because she claimed that I had suffered child abuse by being deprived of both Roald Dahl and Mary Poppins (the horror!). However, since the Poppins wasn't easily available, Dahl would have to do the best job he could at healing the wounds to my inner child. The Twits (not even his best work from what I hear), was very clever and enjoyable, and now I am marking up my calendar for a planned Dahl binge.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Future of Religion (Part 3)

[Edited to add: This is turning into a modestly popular series of posts, with comments continuing to trickle in (the Long Tail!). Please be sure to peruse the comments to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. And, err, Part 5.]

In last week's post, I briefly introduced the current conflict between science and religion in the US of A. The topic of this series is, however, science fiction, so let's move forward.

I have asserted that religion is essentially verboten in science fiction (some exceptions were already noted in the comments to my first post). How can that be? Religion, faith, spirituality -- all these are commonplace in literature. Fantasy is, in my mind, a closely-related genre, but fantasy novels feature the supernatural all the time. Science-fiction: essentially never.

So why is religion overlooked in science-fiction? Let me try to work through some of my thoughts on what might be going on.

  • Science fiction authors aren't religious.

    This is an interesting possibility. I don't really know any way to test this theory... it's true that scientists tend to be less religious than the general population, but scientists and science-fiction-authors are very different creatures.

  • The conflict between science and religion has already been won for science in the future.

    This possibility presumes a few things: first, that there is a conflict between science and religion, and second, that it will be won for science in the future. There are indeed many conflicts between science and religion, but not in all things; neither is it necessary that science and religion conflict. Whether this putative conflict will or won't be won in the future is obviously open for debate. Suppose religion "wins" in the future--isn't that going to make for interesting, creative science-fiction? Suppose science "wins"--does that mean future people will hold no spiritual beliefs at all? And what happens when we meet alien races that do hold strong religious beliefs?

  • Religion doesn't sell.

    I think this might be the real reason. Authors are professionals, and their publishers are professionals -- they're all in the business of making money (more charitably: a living). I'm inclined to believe they have a very good idea of what sells. So my guess is that science-fiction novels that feature future religions rarely sell well.

    But why wouldn't religion in sci-fi sell well? Is it that the people who buy sci-fi aren't very religious? What's the biggest audience for sci-fi anyways?

    Could things be more subtle than the sci-fi audience isn't really interested in religion? Suppose the sci-fi audience is reasonably religious. What happens if an author portrays a future for a particular religion? Will the Catholic League condemn books that portray a future that is monolithically Methodist? Jewish? Hindu? Is it possible to envision a science-fiction future in which the human race is as multicultural as it is today?

So what do you think - why is religion avoided in science fiction?

Next week I'll try listing a few science fiction novels that actually deal with religion.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Spitting in the Eye of the Technological Singularity

The Technological Singularity is a big idea in the world of Sci-Fi. In case you don't know what the Technological Singularity is, I've identified two major definitions with Wikipedia's help:

1. The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence defines it as "the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence."

2. Futurist Ray Kurzweil says, "The Singularity is technological change so rapid and so profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. Some would say that we cannot comprehend the Singularity, at least with our current level of understanding, and that it is impossible, therefore, to look past its 'event horizon' and make sense of what lies beyond."

The idea is that once a "smarter-than-human" AI is created, it will be able to build AI smarter than itself, and so on, and the changes to technology accelerate from there. It conjures images of futures filled with world-ruling robots, technologically-augmented humans, and thinking computers that hold the answers to questions humans have not even thought to ask yet. On its surface it's a neat idea and its name has a fun science-y sound. However, besides being fun to talk about, I'm not convinced the idea has much to offer. It has a number of problems that make it implausible. Instead of the definitions listed above, I contend that the Technological Singularity is three things:

1. A Buzzword that Leverages the Mystique of Artificial Intelligence
2. Magic Masquerading as Science
3. A Crutch for Sci-Fi Writers

Now, I'll elaborate.

1. A Buzzword that Leverages the Mystique of Artificial Intelligence

Kurzweil's definition is pretty over-the-top. I don't even know what a "rupture in the fabric of human history" would be. Perhaps this is just another way to say it would be "earth-shattering," or "change everything," etc. Anyway, I don't buy it. Technological advancement won't speed up to the levels he and others have theorized. They've claimed that the exponential curve of technological progress the human race has been making over its existence will continue its ramp up that curve for a long time to come. This just won't happen.

Here's why: True exponential curves do not exist in real life for very long. There are hard limits in this universe such as the speed of light, or the size of an atom. Finite resources and the laws of physics slow everything down eventually. Sometimes a paradigm shift or genius insight can move technology past a roadblock, but some roadblocks you just cannot pass ... unless you believe in magic.

Intelligence is less well understood than physics, making it ripe ground for speculation and forecasting the future (or "future casting" if you're a weatherman) . However, self-driven intelligence has been an elusive animal to this date. It is easy for humans to manipulate computers to do what we tell them to do, or even perform simple decisions based on a mathematical weighting function. However, in 30+ years of AI research, we have little to show other than fancy search techniques, decision trees, and algorithms that can recognize patterns. This does not mean there will not be a breakthrough into a self-motivated AI that can make complex decisions.

However, I do not think the Singularity will occur as stated, even if we create such an AI. The idea is that once an artificial mind is created that contains "intelligence" to surpass human intelligence, it can then create a better artificial mind with higher intellectual function. This is daydreaming at its finest. Intelligence is no easy thing to quantify. How do we know when we have a machine that is more intelligent than its creator?

Answer: It can perform mental tasks that we cannot.

Now, I'm not talking about all the great things computers can do now, such as performing math faster, winning at chess, and drawing fancy pictures on our computer screens. The idea of a "smarter" computer, is one that can do something that we, as humans, can not do, something that is impossible to do with just a human brain and a process to follow.

Knowing how to program a computer, I have a deep sense that this is impossible. It is especially absurd when you look inside a computer program and discover that if you just performed the same steps as the computer, you could come out with the same answer, just taking more time. If you used a tool to automate some of the menial portions, you could do the same thing, perhaps almost as fast as the computer. You might need some training to do it, but you could do it, too.

What this all boils down to is tools and training. At the core of an AI is a machine to make decisions. At the core of a person is a brain that makes decisions. With the right tools, one can be as good at a particular task, or almost as good as another. Therefore, balancing the premise of the Singularity on AI is incorrect. An AI is like a nice calculator, or someone you pay to do your homework. Doing your homework without them will take longer, but you'll still finish with plenty of time to go play.

Therefore, when we boil down the definitions and take a clear look at them, we see that there's nothing inherently special about AI to make all this happen, and this idea of creating a "smarter" AI than what the human mind can produce is bunk. Therefore, there's no such thing as this "Singularity," this event of creating that AI.

As far as the ideas of robotic armies and AI overlords, that's nothing new. We've had Attila the Hun and Hitler, and all sorts of other nasty sociopaths and their movements to deal with in the past. Dealing with these new jerks might be a little harder, but let's hope that we can keep some of those technological advantages for ourselves if we are indeed stupid enough to engineer our own worst enemies.

2. Magic Masquerading as Science

As I wrote above, I believe that it may be possible for a human to create an AI that can perform the same functions as a human. However, to believe that the creation of such an AI will speed our progress ever forward at increasingly-breakneck speeds because of it is fantasy. For one, because a smarter AI cannot be created, there will no longer be this promised ramp of continually smarter AIs. Also, even with fancy AI that is as smart as a human, we are limited by resources. An AI needs to run on a processor with some other peripheral hardware, including memory, network components, robotics, etc. Also, all of these parts need maintenance, and to be replaced on occasion. Lastly, they need energy to function. Even if we reduce sizes down to the quantum level, these all still hold true.

Compare this to a human. Humans have a lot of the necessary hardware built in, and we self-maintain pretty well, some running for 100 years or more. We also procreate. However, resources are still necessary for us, too. There's also an argument here for biological computers, but if you're going to do that, why not just grow human brains? It comes to the same thing anyway.

It also takes time to build a machine to host the AI, and to train the AI, sort of like it takes time to create a functioning human. Granted, the time to create a computer is much smaller than the time necessary to grow a baby, but the resources become harder to procure over time, even if you start going to space to find them and trying to harness the sun for as much energy you can get. Space travel is expensive and time consuming, and harnessing solar energy has a long way to go. Even if you allow for big advances in these technologies, the theory behind the Singularity is starting to get clunky ("Oh, we need AI, and cheap solar, and better manufacturing, and fast space travel, etc.").

So, if we take all of this into account, we see that we'll reach our hard resource limitations faster, which will kill that exponential speed-up. Getting past that is going to take some magical thinking.

3. A Crutch for Sci-Fi Writers

The Singularity has caught on in the Sci-Fi community, and we are seeing more of these stories set after the Singularity. I like that authors who do this are ignoring the whole, "you can't predict what's going to happen after the Singularity!" idea. It's a stupid thing to posit because it's unverifiable and self-satisfying: it's hard to predict a lot of things, such as when we're going to get flying cars. However, just because I like their guts, does not mean that I think it's good form to posit some sort of Technological Singularity in fiction. It moves Sci-Fi into Fantasy, and makes the Sci-Fi less based in science. It's no worse than saying, "Then aliens gave us a bunch of great technology and now we do all sorts of fantastic new things with science," but just like getting all your great tech from aliens, it feels a little like a cop out, and when it gets overused, it starts to feel like a fad.

Let's Hear Your Thoughts

If you vehemently disagree, let me know. I have a feeling my view is not a popular one, especially since the idea of the Technological Singularity is an interesting one. However, I think I'm on the right track in guessing that the futurologists have thought this one out just as well as they thought out flying cars back in the fifties.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Future of Religion (Part 2)

[Edited to add: This is turning into a modestly popular series of posts, with comments continuing to trickle in (the Long Tail!). Please be sure to peruse the comments to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. And, err, Part 5.]

Before we continue to discuss science fiction and religion, we must reflect briefly on religion and science. It is an oft-repeated canard that science and religion are different but equally valid ways of understanding the world.

No. Nonsense. And it's still nonsense no matter how often it's repeated by politicians, scientists, or religious adherents. "Science" is an organized body of knowledge, developed through the systematic application of the scientific method -- ultimately, it comes down to the systematic testing of hypotheses. Claims which cannot be tested are outside the purview of science.

For example, the presence of a supernatural being who cannot be observed through natural processes (allow me the redundancy for purposes of clarity) -- this is not a testable claim. One can neither prove nor disprove through experiment or systematic observation this possibility. This claim therefore belongs to the realm of religion, and not science.

However, I am not aware of any religion which makes no claims that can be tested. In fact, religions typically thrive on the assumption that the supernatural interferes with the natural. Intercessory prayer is a common practice among Christian religions, for example. Now this is testable: can intercessory prayer affect the outcome of certain events? (In fact, it has been tested, repeatedly, but discussing the validity of these experiments is a topic that belongs on another blog.)

Science and religion do overlap. However, they can still co-exist peacefully. Religion could welcome science - perhaps not all religions, or all interpretations of any given religion, but in principle... why not? The converse is also possible: science could thrive on religion (though not dogma). Scientists are seekers of truth -- is that not a phrase that could apply to many religious adherents?

The conflict arises because science accepts nothing - nothing - on faith. Everything must be tested, and when scientific knowledge begins to fail the best and most devious tests (note the plural), then that knowledge must be discarded. Evidence that conflicts with prevailing belief is examined, weighed, and -- if found valid -- gladly welcomed. To put it another way, scientific belief is based on evidence. Many religions (I do not say all) rely on dogma and faith; conflicting evidence is anathema.

Witness the fundamentalist Christian movement in the United States. A belief that the Bible must be literal and accurate results in a jarring conflict with scientific knowledge. The latest battlefield is the teaching of evolution (or lack thereof) in public schools, as well as a watering-down of science standards in order to permit the teaching of fundamentalist Christian beliefs. It's a very odd thing -- apparently many individuals are threatened by the fact of overwhelming evidence in favour of the validity of evolution by natural selection.

Some links might be of interest:

  • The evidence to support evolution by natural selection is summarized here. You can download the pdf with a few clicks, or refer to an executive summary. (With thanks to PZ Myers of Pharyngula [see below] for the link to the NAS summary.)

  • Perhaps you'll recall the Dover trial? The latest, of course, is the creationist push in Texas. Code words to notice: "teach the controversy" and "just a theory" all signal a fundamentalist push against science. This push is part of a very organized movement, often led by the deceitful Discovery Institute. Coming soon to a state near you! (Up here in Canada, the anti-science movement is far less strong at the moment, but I fear that it will change.)

  • Are you interested in the scientific details of the creationism vs science debate? Try TalkOrigins. Panda's Thumb keeps track of the latest events in the creation vs science conflict. Pharyngula also provides current events, but readers may find the strident anti-religious tone to be offensive. In contrast, a haven of ignorance: Uncommon Descent. Or, for something truly frightening, the latest in creation "research".

  • And there's the current US presidential race (sweet Mabel, will it never end?!), in which several of the initial Republican candidates expressly denied a belief in evolution. From Reason: "A larger question is whether a candidate's belief about the validity of evolutionary biology has anything to say about his or her ability to evaluate evidence."

The conflict between science and religion -- science and any cherished belief of human culture -- is hardly new. I have offered this crude summary of current events in the United States in order to provoke some thought about the future. Where will science and religion go in the future? Will the conflict continue? Will one "side" win?

I personally find it doubtful that religion will ever fade by the wayside. I find it impossible that the entire human species will ever agree on any one set of beliefs. Shouldn't science fiction reflect the religious and scientific turmoil we see today?

Comments are invited - how will the conflict between science and religion play out in the future, and how should science fiction address this issue? If you imagine a world in the future - aliens and spaceships and the whole lot - where does religion fit into your vision?

Next week I'll try musing about why science fiction so rarely addresses human religion.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Future of Religion (Part 1)

[Edited to add: This is turning into a modestly popular series of posts, with comments continuing to trickle in (the Long Tail!). Please be sure to peruse the comments to Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4. And, err, Part 5.]

One topic that has been puzzling me lately has been the lack of any serious portrayal of religion in science-fiction. Science-fiction -- real science-fiction -- is in my opinion about people, about the interaction of science, technology, and human culture. Science-fiction is speculative anthropology (see Ursula K. Le Guin, for example). So what does science-fiction have to say about religion? Apparently, nothing.

Go figure.

Religion is seen frequently in science fiction, but almost always religion is associated with alien species. (Star Trek might be a very accessible example here.)

Recently I've been wondering about this while watching Babylon 5. Like much science-fiction (television or otherwise), there are several significant alien species. The Narns revere G'Quan and his writings; spirituality among Narns in general is frequently shown on the show. The Minbari on the show are highly religious. In contrast, the Centauri show little or no spirituality (other than, arguably, the potential civil religion focused on the old Republic). The Vorlons are too cryptic to make sense of, so we can draw no conclusions from them. The only remaining major species on Babylon 5 is the human species, and none of the major characters show any inclination towards religion while on the station, other than partaking in some of the Minbari rituals. True, there are a few episodes that deal with religious humans, such as an episode in which Roman Catholic monks arrive on the station, but overwhelmingly it appears that humans aren't religious.

(In one episode, a major spiritual visitation occurs on the space station. Representatives of each species each see their own main religious figure. The Narns see G'Quan; the Drazi - a minor species - see their ancient prophet; the Minbari see Valen. And what do humans see? Some sort of angel that looks like Mister Clean. I can't begin to guess what that was supposed to represent. Intriguingly, one automatically assumes a monolithic religion for the alien species, but that is simply not possible for humans.)

I won't claim that religion is a universal trait among humans, but it's pretty close to universal... so doesn't it seem odd that science-fiction overlooks the possibility that humans in the future might be religious?

This post is the first in a multi-part series. Please come back next Monday - I'll take a quick detour to blog about the alleged conflict between science and religion. After that, it's back to the science fiction, and hopefully I can present some ideas as to why science fiction typically ignores human religion.

In the meantime, comments are invited; what do you think might be going on? Any favourite science-fiction novels that do portray future religion?

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Legend of the Firefish

Recommended: The Legend of the Firefish (George Bryan Polivka), Book 1 of The Trophy Chase Trilogy.

I first heard about this book by browsing around the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour. It's George Bryan Polivka's first fantasy publication, published in March of 2007. I have read very little of what I consider to be Christian Fantasy, and I'm always looking for new authors, so I was eager to read it. When Mister Troll told me about the Fantasy Debut blog, I decided that guest posting there would be fun if the owner would have me. It turns out that Tia is very gracious, and she told me she'd be happy to have a guest post from Books Under the Bridge, so here we are! Thank you, Tia and Fantasy Debut!

Reading more about the book on Polivka's website, as well as the introduction to his world, named Nearing Vast, I was intrigued to find out that the story has overt Christian themes. This is pretty unique in my experience, and when an author explores a religious, a-religious, or otherwise philosophical perspective in his work, he runs the risk of preaching or otherwise beating the reader over the head with his viewpoint, and thus making the story less likable to readers not already subscribing to his view. I wondered whether Polivka could pull it off, especially since he is new to the genre, and how he would manage it.

The story is about a fisherman's son, Packer Throme, who believes he knows the location of the breeding grounds of the legendary Firefish. The Firefish is a rare species of monstrous fish whose meat grants strength and healing to those who eat it, and its meat is thus very valuable.

Scatter Wilkins, pirate-turned-entrepreneur, is captain of the Trophy Chase. His new business is Firefish hunting, a very lucrative, but complex and dangerous business. The only thing keeping him from retiring rich is the rarity of the fish. If he just knew a reliable way to find them....

Packer has a plan to stow away on the Trophy Chase, and help Scat Wilkins find the breeding grounds. If he can convince the veteran pirate to believe his claims (and not kill him), he hopes that he can bring prosperity back to his little fishing village and redeem his father's reputation. From here, The Legend of the Firefish follows Packer through his gambit, and then the crew of the Trophy Chase as they track down a bounty that may be more danger than they can handle, or survive.

The summary above does not sound so religiously-themed. Where's the philosophy, the Christianity? The answer: it's in Packer's actions and motivations. And did Polivka come off preachy? To that, I'd answer a solid, "No." Instead, he wrote a ripping yarn, full of grace in style and content. The core of the story is inventive and packed with action. The religious themes are integral to the plot, and not just tacked-on window dressing or disguised sermons. To top it off, the story contains a certain purity that I have missed in many books I read nowadays. It often feels like a classic, because the writing is concise, pointed, and not frilled with excess description, dialog, or philosophizing.

The main characters are memorable and fresh. Packer is clever, likable, and complex. However, he occasionally thrashes over his beliefs, and comes across a little whiny/fatalistic when he does so. Thankfully, this is believable for his character, as he is a young man who has suffered some serious setbacks in his life, including expulsion from seminary school and a missing father largely considered crazy for rambling on about the Firefish breeding grounds.

The second main character is Panna Seline, Packer's sweetheart and daughter of the local priest. When Packer leaves town, she chases after him, as fantasy sweethearts are wont to do. I've read that Polivka intended for her to be a strong female character, and I believe he succeeded. However, she's not your typical Ass-Kicking Annie. Instead, when she sneaks out of town and encounters harsh reality, she realizes just how sheltered she has been, and rises to meet her unique challenges. And she's believable, sometimes excruciatingly so, such as when her naiveté leads her deeper into trouble.

Despite the strength of the main characters, it's the secondary characters that really make The Legend of the Firefish shine. The pirates and engineers of the Trophy Chase have been lovingly crafted, and they stand out in the fantasy genre. Characters such as the faithful Delaney, the academic John Hand, and the stoic, dynamite-wielding engineer, Stedman Due, all add a fantastic color to the story. Furthermore, the Firefish are powerfully-delivered antagonists, and they steal many of the scenes in which they appear. In some of these scenes, we get to see through the mind of the fish, and this adds a little Jaws-like atmosphere into the mix of the story. All of these great characters work to fill out Firefish and make it both engaging and memorable.

Lastly, the descriptions of the ships and the seamanship really captured me. The various stunts and maneuvers read authentically, and as a sailing enthusiast, I often found myself wishing I had a chance to ride in the rigging of the sleekly grand Trophy Chase.

I look forward to continuing Polivka's series with The Hand that Bears the Sword and The Battle for Vast Dominion, both of which have been recently published.