Monday, February 25, 2008

Hard SF: So Hard It's Impossible ...?

This post is once again thanks to Bernita, who a few days ago wrote a boffo review of Grimspace, a new novel by Ann Aguirre. The book sounds like a winner, but I rather ungenerously used the comments to register a general SF grump. As thumbnailed by Bernita,

As the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through space -- a talent that cuts into her life expectancy but makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp.

This is a well-established science fiction trope, that navigating though FTL requires some form of human intuition. (My grump is that this is a sort of authorial special pleading - more on this below.) The intuitive talent may be, as evidently in Grimspace, a rare genetic trait, and usually one that exacts some price from anyone so gifted. Or it may be old fashioned seat of the pants piloting skill, something that can be learned through study and discipline - though probably also benefiting from genetic inheritance, in this case happily rendering the person exceptionally attractive to the gender of preference. Broadly speaking these two types are Luke Skywalker and Han Solo respectively.

In one form or other this is what Romance in all its subgenres is all about. Romance is essentially different from realistic fiction, which is why much of the writing advice you hear is wrong, especially about characterization but also background. In Romance, the knights are bolder, the ladies fairer, the mean streets grittier, and a round trip ticket to the space station costs $100,000, not $20 million. Yeah, my Princess Catherine is tall and has red hair - you gotta problem with tall redheads, take it up with her, not me.

Does this expose my grump at Bernita's blog as bullshit, and incidentally show that hard SF is a contradiction in terms? A curious and little noticed characteristic of Romance is that although it is fundamentally non-realistic, authors in the Romance genres are often quite preoccupied by various types of realism. The author of realistic mainstream fiction does not have to research Anysuburb, USA, in order to write about it. The author of a novel set in Henry VIII's court, or aboard a frigate in 1794, or involving a murder investigation, has some reading up to do.

So does the author whose novel takes place in a completely imaginary royal court, or aboard a starship. The standards of credibility are different, but they are no less demanding and maybe more. People who habitually read the Romance genres tend to know their stuff, and they can tell the difference between a real royal court and one apparently filled with present day 'Murricans who raided a chest full of stage costumes. (Ladies: Show attitude by all means, but a little feminist rhetoric goes a long, long ways.) Starships can work any number of ways, but shipboard organization and procedures are either spaceworthy or not, and it shows.

Science fiction, however, has some peculiar problems - technologies in which, in the real world, we have made too much progress. Spaceship navigation, FTL or otherwise, is a good example. As noted earlier, you'll find FTLs that require rare special gifts or highly trained piloting skills (or both). What you probably won't find in SF of recent decades is an FTL transit that requires classical navigating skills, like those in Heinlein's 1950s vintage YA classic, Starman Jones.

In that novel, starship astrogation (an SF term now almost fallen out of use) requires mathematical talent, to correctly calculate the ship's position and trajectory far out in deep space at speeds approaching the speed of light. The Astrogator is almost constantly on duty for the last 36 hours or so before jump, supported by a team of well trained enlisted men who take instrument readings and feed data into the ship's computer - yes, the starship Asgard has a computer. (A computerman uses a book of tables to convert base 10 numbers into binary, so they can be input into the computer. How's that for a user friendly interface?). The atmosphere in the "Worry Hole" is edge of the chair as the Astrogater solves the final rounds of course corrections, under enormous time pressure - oh, hell, read the book. That is starship navigation as it was supposed to be.

The problem is that, with present day computer technology, not only would there be no computerman with his book of table, there would be no Astrogator - the whole jump would be flown under computer control, with far greater precision and safety than brilliant, dedicated Dr. Hendrix could ever have imagined.

There is no way around this. Intuitive piloting in FTL is one thing, if your FTL is gimmicked to require it, but navigation - the haven-finding art, and for the last 500 years primarily a branch of applied mathematics and observational astronomy - is by its nature logical and regular. No, you cannot plead that this is Romance, because the Romantic archetype of the Navigator is precisely that element of reason - pressing on through night and fog with confidence, relying on mastery of theory and exacting instrumental observation.

This is not the same as intuitive seat of the pants piloting. It has a magic of its own - or had it, because those times are done now. Navigators was born, in the European tradition, around the 14th century - when, amid schematic medieval maps, we suddenly find portalan charts, so accurately drawn that at first glance we could take them for modern maps, real maps to get you where you are going. They began to die sometime in the last couple of decades. Yes, the wise yachtsman still masters celestial navigation in case the GPS system craps out, but if automated celestial navigation packages aren't available it is because GPS killed the demand.

This is even more the case with space navigation, because normal-space (non-FTL) navigation is about as well suited to computerization as anything can be. Sure, the computer could crap out - so could the main drive. They quit putting buggy whip sockets on cars once the likelihood of completing a road trip behind a team of horses became insignificant. They will never start training spaceship navigators, if the prospect is that none of them will ever actually need to use their skills.

FTL has remained the escape hatch, now serving double duty - not only a way to get from star to star in less than decades, but a way to require human navigation, because computer algorithms can't figure it out. This was my grump, because it always feels like a bit of special pleading. How convenient. It is a well established SF trope, and it violates no law of Romance, but I still grump.

Yet what do I say to Bernita? Her counter-grump was a better one:

I shrink from a FUTURE that eliminates the human factor and human instinct in either piloting or navigation.

She's right. I don't want Linux-based spacenav packages; I want the starship Asgard.

One possible solution - the one that gave a name to this blog - is to belly up to the bar and admit that our SF stories are not about The Future, but about an imaginary world where space travel is the way we imagined it just before we started doing it - where the astrogator of a ship bound for Mars makes one last check on her circular slide rule and nods to the captain. But this is also a form of special pleading.

Are there other ways out? One way out might be to observe that our current unmanned space probes are not in fact navigated by computers. They are navigated by people, at JPL, who use computers to do a job that would be impossibly complicated without them. Unless you assume semimagical computers (and so far as I can tell, the AI people aren't even much pursuing HAL style quasi-human intelligence any more), Mission Control is going to be around for a long time to come.

So if you're building a large passenger-carrying spaceship anyway, it could make perfectly good sense to put Mission Control, or at least part of it, on board the ship, making it that much less dependent on control facilities at its ports of call - especially since these may not always be up to the very highest standards. This is Romance, after all.

What the control room crew does on watch, however, is probably not just a jazzed up version of the Enterprise bridge crew or the Asgard's worry gang. (Off watch is another matter, humans being humans.) Computers will indeed do nearly all the piloting and navigating in the usual sense - handflying a spaceship is a ding waiting to happen, as the Mir-Progress collision already demonstrated. So what are the people doing?

Oddly enough we are very hazy on that, or at least I am. I imagine much of their duties will involve monitoring and controlling the computers that actually fly the ship - maintaining software and the like, but especially performing tasks such as simming possible future maneuvers. More direct intervention will be called for only in circumstances that fall outside the flight plan, including all precomputed variations. Which is a technical way of saying "story conditions" - because if your story involves the control crew in their professional capacity, it is a pretty good bet that the ship's regular flight plan is about to get nullified.

As for the part that intuition might play in all this, in skills like navigation, intuition is what you fall back on when the problem you need to solve is not in the manual. (Or, as in Starman Jones, when the manual has been disappeared.) It may be worth noting here that computer programming itself is a notoriously intuitive art, filled with what programmers themselves call deep magic - which is why there are still so many rich geeks in Silicon Valley. No one has yet managed to automate software design, and few are holding their breath for it.

Notice that the above points apply to ordinary, practically-Newtonian interplanetary navigation, majestic in its formal certainty. FTL, if you have it, can be equally deterministic, and chances are that human control crews will still have their hands full getting around through it.

What applies to civil navigation surely applies in spades to space combat. On the one hand, without special pleading it is hard to justify laser-cannon gunners zeroing in on targets with a joystick - and all but impossible to justify the ever popular space fighter, which performs no mission an automated drone cannot do as well, with the further advantage that it is a lot easier in most cultures to write off a drone. On the other hand, the operational environment of space combat, even if formally as clean as in Attack Vector, is liable to turn out in practice to be filled with bewildering ambiguities and uncertainties. Even simple tasks get more complicated when you are being shot at.

I am not sure how all of this plays out, but one way or another, it is possible that the super automated space technology of (non-rocketpunk) Tomorrow will turn out to be at least as complicated in human terms as trying to get a word processor to print a document the way you want it to look, not the way Microsoft thinks you should want it to look. And especially when all hell is breaking loose, as it probably is.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Plot Twists and World Tapestries

Among my regular haunts, which have gone largely unvisited as I play the $2 window in the Sport of Emperors perform my duty of civic involvement, is Bernita's litblog. Poking my head out, I was so lucky as to find this post on twists, of the literary sort. Literary twists come on any number of scales, from the big one at the end of a mystery novel to a surprise direct object at the end of a sentence. Somewhere in between goes the chapter cliff-hanger, like characters realizing that their private conversation was overheard.

For whatever reason, I have little trouble coming up with twists to get from chapter to chapter in a novel, but I have never been able to write a decent short story. In short stories, the twist is paramount. There is too little time to create a world or build up characters; if the thing is to be more than a vignette it has to smack us between the eyes at the end. I lack this gift, and all my attempts at short stories have been either vignettes or Reader's Digested novels.

This is inconvenient, because short stories are the traditional way to break in to science fiction. In fact there is a longstanding critical argument - I am not sure who first made it - that SF is inherently a short story medium. The speculative assumption, or gimmick, naturally lends itself to the short story twist, whether in the classic bad science fiction story or the classic good one.

More interesting, though, is the corollary, again beyond my powers of attribution: It has been said, he said pretentiously, that science fiction novels fall apart at the end. This it seems to me is often true, especially since the beginning of the end may be less than halfway through the book.

Case in point, Dune. This is a safe place, non judgmental, where you can come out of the closet. Isn't the best part that whole futuro-medieval world, with its corps of assassins and plots within plots within plots? The wheels start to come off as soon as Paul is out in the damn desert, channeling Osama. Yes, a certain maritime hegemonic power could have learned useful foreign policy lessons from the second half of the book, but as a story it went down hill, and set the stage for all those awful sequels. The ecosystem of Arrakis, though a brilliant SF concept, is not enough to carry the weight of a novel.

Foundation Trilogy does the perfect swan dive crash and burn, because its failure is built directly into the structure of the plot. If the Seldon Plan has it all worked out, where's the dramatic tension? Asimov gets through the first few Seldon Crises via a shrewd insight, the role of able leaders in surfing the historical wave. But after about 300 years that gimmick wears thin, and Asimov falls back on complete bullshit - though a brilliant conceived character - the Mule.

Decades later Asimov went back, retconned the Mule (and the whole Foundation-verse) into his robot-verse, and wrote another set of awful sequels that sold like hotcakes. It is too bad he didn't try the alternative approach of having the Seldon Plan simply run off the rails, or better yet fall prey to the inherent tension of prophesies - once people even partly work it out they can start gaming it.

Even this, though, would not quite have made Foundation Trilogy work, because no gimmick can hold up the whole fabric of a novel. (Strictly speaking, no work of Romance is a novel, but use it here in the loose sense of a long story that is not purely episodic.)

For an example of what makes a novel - or at any rate, an epic length Romance - work, I will offer Lord of the Rings. The fantasy gimmicks here are inherently no better than science fiction gimmicks. Yes, it is both cool and Deep that in the end, right at the Crack of Doom, Frodo wimps out, and Gollum saves him by a finger. But please. That is not sufficient satisfaction for reading 17,563 pages, including some of the worst poetry in written English, and even worse poetry in Elvish, and still pressing on not only to scour the Shire but sweep all the way through Appendix xxvi(7)c.

The shortcomings of Lord of the Ring have filled shelves of critical commentary and libraries of bad imitations; it rises above them all by the sheer vastness and richness of its world. This same vastness and richness are everything good about Dune and Foundation Trilogy. That is why they have outlasted their gimmicks, surviving even though they fall flat at the end.

No gimmick can save a world, but a well crafted world will keep going when gimmicks fall by the wayside. I might even ask whether, in long fiction, overall gimmicks are necessary at all, or merely get in the way of creation.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Stumbling Across the Stream of Time

Time, according to a perhaps apocryphal physicist, is what keeps everything from happening all at once. It is not like the other dimensions, for reasons that I am not qualified to discuss theoretically, but which are fairly clear to us in everyday terms. I could easily rewrite my recent, laughably bad predictions here, but I cannot go back and rewrite them.

Many genres of Romance play with time, Alternate History most obviously but by no means alone. Fantasy deals with it whenever a tourist in Fantasyland stumbles across Eldritch Runes, which are sometimes a mere warning ("Doors Man was not meant to open"), but more often a Prophesy. This - continuing our extemp stealing from Diana Wynne Jones - will usually prove to be more elliptical than my election forecasts, but no more accurate.

I stumbled into Time from my dislike of magic. I hate spells or amulets that merely imitate the effects of industrial-age technology, and magical swords take the challenge out of swordsmanship. Yeah there are workarounds. I still don't like it. But you gotta have something kinda sorta magical in a fantasy, so for Catherine of Lyonesse I came up with a Renaissance mathematician and astronomer, who among his period widgets has a mirror that - sometimes - shows the future.

Like any spirited princess, the young lady pays the inevitable unauthorized visit to his study, where she sees the inevitably ambiguous foreshadowing of Things To Come. My excuse for pimping a manuscript still sitting on an editor's desk, however, is that I'm really pretty happy with how I - or the Mathematicus Regalis - explained it all:

"The glass shows things that may be. By the nature of the case, it cannot show what will be. Permit me a demonstration, Altesse." He walked towards her, and in spite of herself Catherine backed away. He merely opened the armoire and took out an hourglass. Turning it over he set it down. Fine white sand streamed through to form a little pile at the bottom.

"The river of time resembles the flow through this hourglass," explained d'Epaulier. "In the hourglass, sand begins in the future, as it were, waiting to mark what is yet to be. It falls through to the bottom, and there marks what has already come to pass. Likewise our fate comes from the uncertain future, is determined at the eternal present, and plunges into the immutable past. Here, Altesse. Come closer and look." Catherine nervously approached until she stood beside him.

"As each grain of sand passes through the neck of the glass," he said, "it passes from what might be to what is, and has been. As for fate? Watch the grains. Each, passing the present, falls to the place destined for it. Yet precisely where, the wisest of men could not say."

Catherine watched the hourglass. Grains streamed through the neck onto the growing pile at the bottom. Some lay where they fell atop the pile. Others slid or danced down the side before coming to rest.

"People misunderstand Fortune, Altesse. We who study the heavens have a saying: The stars impel, they do not compel. You, Catherine de Guienne, do not have a single, predestined future. Indeed, you have an infinitude of possible futures. You might become a saint. You might become a shepherdess." D'Epaulier chuckled. "Neither of those outcomes is likely, to be sure. The greater chance is that you will be Queen of Lyonesse."


Taking another look at the passage I see that even with the best of intentions I have misled you, my handful of loyal readers, once again I said I would stay away from politics. I lied.

Girl meets kingdom. Girl loses kingdom. Girl wins kingdom. Sorry - with me, there's just no escaping politics.

Just Call Me Nostradamus

No, this is not a weaselly way of getting out of my obligation to put up a real blog post today. That was a real promise, not a campaign promise.

Still I have a right to gloat about my continued perfect record of completely miscalling the Democratic primaries. (I'm not linking myself; but read the January archive.) Something huge just had to be in the air yesterday. What with the media Obamania, and the polls converging and chaotic at the same time, for sure it had to break big at the end one way or another. Didn't it? Cusp of a catastrophe, and all that?

So naturally it come out dead even, maybe Hillary by a few hundred nanometers. On Mount Olympus the writers' strike must be ongoing for at least the last 5000 years, because the gods just keep on playing the same old jokes. And we just keep on taking the sucker punch.

But in for a dime, in for a dollar, so here goes my next prophesy:

Hillary didn't get washed out, but my metaphor did, so my new one is 1914. The Oschleiffen Plan nearly worked - especially because this time when the right wing swept through Belgium, the Belgians not only really did greet them with flowers, they gave them rides to the French border. All the same, almost is not quite ...

So they won't be marching home for Christmas, on either side - the trenchlines are being dug, and the wire is going up.

There! The fix is in - now it will be over in March!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Rix Pix 2008 - Super Tuesday: Seldon Crisis

Alas, more primary politics. Non-'Murricans, see my Euro backgrounder here. And apologies to all, but I am 'Murrican, and besides being a far more thrilling sport than professional football - even real football, played with a prolate ball - this stuff matters. It probably matters to you too, much as you wish it didn't, but I get to vote on it. I proudly cast mine for Hillary Clinton this morning, which I suppose constitutes my valued endorsement in this race.

GOP: McCain stands on the steps of Westminster Abbey. Ho hum.

Democrats: Hillary, and it won't be close. Say, a net 120 delegates, out of some 1700 chosen today. There, I said it, though I may be dining on my words by evening.

Obama was surging last week - an unfortunate term now, in the American lexicon. The polls have pretty much converged, except that the polls are chaotic. The pollsters are hapless, because Democrats are coming out of the woodwork to vote. What we know from the primaries so far is that they tend to break big at the end, one way or another. So I may as well predict with my heart as throw dice.

Expectation of a big break at the end is part of why I used the rather grandiose term Seldon Crisis. A Seldon Crisis is, among other things, a sudden break of continuity. The larger reason for using the term is that though half the country has yet to vote, I believe today will be decisive, even if I am wrong and it is close.

Obama is the storm surge, Hillary is the levee. If he tops over her, even by an inch, he will wash her away in the downstream states, those voting in later primaries. If however he comes up short, even by an inch, it will be high water for him, and his tide will go out as it came in.

Tomorrow I return you to your usual blog - that is a promise in writing. Oh, and here is the obligatory link to Atomic Rockets. (Winch, if you have been puzzling over a trickle of visitors from Daily Kos, it is because I link your site whenever I use the phrase rocket science, or suggest that someone ought to pay a visit Planet Earth.)