Monday, March 29, 2010

Communication, Aliens, and People Who Speak in Klingon of Na'vi

The Rosetta Stone
The invented language of the Na'vi in Avatar raises the question of communicating with aliens, and for that matter how aliens might communicate among themselves. (The title, from a comment on a blog post at Language Log, was alas a mere typo, corrected to 'people who speak in Klingon or Na'vi.')

Communicating with aliens, by odd coincidence, also came up in comments to the last thread on Starship Troopers, if only backhandedly. Mutual understanding through dialogue, we are given to understand, is not an option with the Bugs. Heinlein does not bother to sneer at the idea of negotiating with them. When the MI capture a 'brain' bug, the Federation wants to study it, not interrogate it.

In Avatar (which, disclaimer, I have not seen) the Na'vi are perfectly capable of language - one that can canonically be written with the roman alphabet - but the corporate mercs are still not interested in talking. If the 16th century is anything to go by, this is all too plausible.

But supposing both parties want to talk, what then?

My uncharitable first reaction to written Na'vi, specifically the name Na'vi, is that Diana Wynne Jones has become our tour guide. Apostrophes in fantasy names are notorious. (Diacritical marks are exotic to English speakers, and the apostrophe is the only one we have on our keyboards.) But this is a quibble, because Na'vi is unabashedly put together as an exotic (to us) human language. Metaphor, in this case, trumps Hard SF literalism.

Real aliens might not make things so helpful, no matter how eager they are to talk. Broadly speaking there are two schools of thought about this. One is that aliens will be alien, their thought processes and means of expressing them so different from ours that real communication (not just a sort of black box interpretation of behavior) will be impossible. The other is that true, sentient intelligence can overcome these barriers, indeed in a sense is about overcoming these barriers.

The barriers - simple, profound, or both - could take varied forms. Only prejudice says that hive entities must be implacably hostile, but striking up a conversation with one could be difficult. If they have a brain caste of sentient individuals the problem is not unlike dealing with any alien race. But if the hive's intelligence is networked, it would surely be a very slow learner. (I believe a commenter made this point a few weeks ago.)

If sentient reasoning arises out of the interplay of the whole hive, a single simple thought might take form at roughly the pace that tidbits go viral among humans in a village or online, perhaps a couple of days for its consciousness to formulate the equivalent of a simple sentence. ('Hmm, this pattern looks non-random ...') Perhaps much longer. Any real dialogue with it might take generations.

But that is only a technical problem of sorts, and it has an established technical solution, the institution of the university, a tool for sustained inquiry that goes back nearly 2500 years. The real puzzler question here goes to a deeper level: How much of our reasoning, and theirs, is universal, and how much is bound up in biological experience?

There is a trope that mathematics, at least, is a universal language, but it depends on what you are trying to say with it. Music is richly mathematical, a transmission as unambiguously intelligent as the first thousand digits of pi, but what information does it encode? Writing about music, as the saying goes, is like dancing about architecture.

Art, in all its forms, is where Plato enters the primate house. It makes full use of our intelligence, perhaps the highest use. It is the marker of our humanity; the argument over whether Neanderthals were truly human, or not quite, is all about whether they produced some form of art, if simply applying makeup. But art is also all about apes hooting, jumping around, and being fascinated by bright colors.

Would it make any sense at all to non-apes? Would their equivalent, if they have one, make any sense to us? Could we recognize their art, even in a black box way, let alone appreciate it? Could any sentient race not have some analog to art?

If we encounter aliens, what do we try to talk about?

The image is of the Rosetta Stone.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Starship Troopers Gets a Dozen at the Grating

Starship Troopers Paperback Cover
"Bugs, Mr. Rico! Zillions of 'em!"

This is a commentary on the Robert Heinlein novel in which those immortal words appear, not the Paul Verhoeven movie in which (unaccountably) they are never spoken.

I like Starship Troopers, the book, but do not entirely approve of it. This itself is an odd thing to say. Quite apart from whether anyone else cares what I approve of, it is not the way I or most people usually talk about science fiction novels. But people do not talk about Starship Troopers the way they do about other SF novels, and I am not going to either.

Let's cut to the chase. The Starship Troopers debate, and it is as old as the book, is mainly about the Federation's political system and military institutions, and the surrounding culture, as shown in the book. What does Heinlein think of them, and what should we think of them? In other words the argument is about the book's politics.

Should it even matter? Starship Troopers is a science fiction novel, a work of Romance. It takes place in an imaginary future that is NOT a thinly veiled stand-in for Heinlein's present day, nor an overt commentary on it. There is one oblique reference to the Korean War - an important one, dealing with the non-return of POWs, in a book where 'making pickup' on your troops is a major theme. But Heinlein is disciplined in his historical references.

I can infer that the war which led to creation of the Federation was fought against Communists, and especially those prisoner-waterboarding Red Chinese. But this is only an inference: Heinlein does not say it. I can read the Bugs as a metaphor for Communism, but the same is true of the giant ants in Them! Hey, it was the 1950s.

Heinlein's 1950s juveniles were his Golden Age, and he put a lot of sophisticated political commentary into them, from multiple perspectives. ('Murrican perspectives, naturally, though he hints in some stories that the Anglosphere has re-coalesced into a new British Empire.) Starman Jones portrays a dystopian future of the New Deal, Between Planets a dystopian future of the internal security state.

Heinlein is far more approving of the society in Starship Troopers. Everyday civilian life, the little we see, is pretty colorless, pun intended. But there are no ration coupons, let alone conscript labor battalions or secret police.

In fact the comfortable dullness of Starship Trooper's civilian world is one more way that this book resembles Space Cadet. The compare & contrast is so crisp it is embarrassing. Matt Dodson goes to space Annapolis, Johnny Rico goes to space Camp Lejeune. Both sit through some lectures on the political theory behind the service they have joined. These lectures go down smoothly enough that teenage and preteen readers mostly didn't throw the books against the wall.

The Federation Space Patrol that Robert Heinlein has Cadet Dodson join, with all apparent sign of approval, is a one world, internationalist, global peacekeeping force under UN-esque auspices. Patrol officers are Blue Helmets with nuclear weapons, that they have used at least once against a city. This ought to be smoking hot stuff (so to speak), but no one argues about Space Patrol the way they argue about Starship Troopers.

That said, Heinlein goes much more into the political structure and ideals of the Starship Troopers Federation, again with apparent approval. And they are problematic. Heinlein is trying to square the circle of traditional republican civic responsibility and pure volunteerism, but the Federation's service-based restricted franchise could easily leave most of the people under its rule with no voice the government is obligated to hear.

If you are going to debate political theory this is a serious issue, but it hardly accounts for the visceral tone of so many Starship Troopers arguments.

Real world history explains some of it. The implied historical background of Space Cadet - the UN as a delicately veiled instrument of American hegemonism - was relegated to the hypothetical at the very start of the Cold War, as the print was drying on the first edition. The Patrol is the recognizable parent of Starfleet, but its politics have been relegated to an indefinite future.

The implied historical background of Starship Troopers - a West narrowly rescued from lawless streets and an un-won war - got a much longer run in 'Murrican popular political culture. Case in point, the references to unreturned POWs hit a historical and cultural chord. They make Johnny Rico a second cousin to Rambo, albeit a few generations removed. He needs that power armor, to carry not only a buddy but also a lot of political baggage.

Which still doesn't quite explain the accusation that Starship Troopers is authoritarian, or worse. On substantive grounds the accusation is lame. Military recruit training is authoritarian, but if you want out, just say the word and you're on your way home. Only if you violated a military regulation do you stand to get a flogging on the way out the door.

But flogging is rather prominent in Starship Troopers. It brought forth Thomas M. Disch's notorious comment about 'swaggering leather boys,' and not until David Feintuch would there again be so much spanking in a science fiction novel. Floggings are not confined to the military, either. Johnny Rico reflects that if anyone carried on like a juvenile delinquent in the bad old days, he and his father would both get one. I guess Heinlein was not a big fan of Rebel Without a Cause.

Flogging, I believe, largely accounts for the whiff of authoritarianism that clings to Starship Troopers in spite of all merely logical objections.

In mainstream Romance we usually encounter flogging only in premodern settings, most often at the grating of an 18th century frigate. Wherever we encounter it, it symbolizes dominance, submission, and hierarchy. In a future setting, where there isn't even the element of historical period color, the connotations are that much starker.

The floggings even account, in a way, for the charge of fascism. Yes, that word is far past its sell-by date, and should be confined to political movements that feature color coded shirts, torchlight parades, and preferably some actual historical link to Benito Mussolini. But one thing that has entered the pop culture is that fascists and their ilk (especially You Know Who), were pretty kinky. Starship Troopers doesn't have chains or leather, but it does have whips.

Well, now I have talked myself into an awkward jam, haven't I? Because in spite of all this I still like the book. It's a great story, told by a great storyteller near his prime. It may show the first stages of Heinlein's later crankishness, but it isn't pulled down by them.

And I am not alone. The Starship Troopers argument has lasted so long because it draws its oxygen from all those conflicted readers who like it, even though they feel uneasy about it. Or vice versa.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rapid Transit

Intergalactic Tunnel Portal
Regular readers know, and newcomers may guess from the blog title and header image, that I have a weakness for traditional space technology. This is the technology of Clarke and Heinlein, and it has the virtue that it actually works. Even the much maligned Shuttle truly has been a workhorse for a generation, its two catastrophic losses more the result of mismanagement than its design flaws. (And at that they were just the disasters that writers of the rocketpunk era expected.)

Thus I have avoided discussion of FTL, or even such minor technomagics as antigravity and sublight warp drives. In part it is because these technologies are so speculative that it is hard to pin down their capabilities and limitations, in part because I just plain prefer roaring rockets (or, in a different context, flashing swords) to magical mumbo jumbo.

But physics rears its head in surprising ways, and it showed up in the wonderful, astonishing comment threat on Torchships to point out that FTL, with certain constraints, does not violate General Relativity. (GR itself is surely not the Final Word on the subject, but its findings are no more likely to be tossed out wholesale than Newton was.)

In particular, commenter Luke raised the subject of wormholes, and explored some of the relevant concepts. I recommend the discussion, though you may wish to inbibe the ethanol mix or herb of your choice before your head explodes.

The mainstream convention in science fiction is to treat FTL as a handy interstellar rapid transit system, allowing ships to travel at the speed of plot while otherwise leaving them as more or less familiar, recognizable spaceships. My own preference, back when I was playing with traditional FTL in demi operatic settings, was to treat starships as hardly different from interplanetary ships except that they had a gizmo somewhere containing a young lady singing in Welsh to hustle things along.

But there is no particular reason to think that wormholes, or other plausible ways of making an end run around Einstein, would work that way. If wormholes can be traversed at all, we may be able to anchor them to planets, so you could simply walk through, or at least drive through like the Holland Tunnel. Stargates of this sort are by no means rare in SF, to be sure; the first I encountered was in Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky.

Such details are (within broad constraints) purely a matter of conjecture, and I prefer to suppose that the technology of passing through a wormhole requires a 'fixed guideway' of some sort, AKA a railway structure, making it truly a rapid transit system to the stars. While the underlying principles may involve head-exploding physics, much of the operation might be more recognizable - stations, switching systems and interlockings, scheduling trains, and of course a nifty system map inspired by the London Underground map.

So get out your fare card and head for the turnstiles.

Photo Note: San Francisco loves its transportation history, and here a historic (ex-Philadelphia) PCC streetcar arrives inbound, the N Judah line evidently having been rerouted from Sunset/Parkside to Messier 88, 50 million light years from Embarcadero Station. Streetcar image by David Pirmann from; galaxy from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Is Military SF an Imposter?

Vintage SF Battleship
This shot at military SF from another blog has already caused quite a discussion at SFConsim-l. Thanks to commenter VonMalcolm for passing along this link!

Brief pause for those who haven't already read it.

One response that some commenters on the original post made, and it is a fair one, is that the author is technically correct, but misses the point. War fiction, in fact, is not about war. It is about soldiers. The first Western war story wasn't about the Trojan War, but an argument of fellow soldiers over incidental spoils that boiled over, with consequences on the battlefield.

Amateurs may study tactics while professionals study logistics, but storytellers never waste precious story time on the supply chain. Well, except for the occasional convoy story, or the frigate genre, or any story featuring a battle fought over a bridge or pass or other strategic point of communication. In fact the supply chain figures quite a bit in war fiction - usually because the other side is trying to interfere with it.

I think the author's intended point is not that war stories, in space or elsewhere, should be treatises on Clausewitz, but that they should be informed by Clausewitz - that the wars being fought should make sense as conflicts, not just provide a handy excuse for characters to blow up lots of stuff including each other. In fact it is logistics and similar background factors, including ultimate war objectives and grand strategy, that drive when, where, and how the people at the front of the spear end up fighting each other.

Case in point, Starship Troopers. (I already made this comment on SFConsim-l, but I reserve the right to plagiarize myself.) The disconnect in Starship Troopers is between the nature of the war and its tactical conduct.

Heinlein is barely short of explicit that it is a racial war of extermination. Close paraphrase, "Both races are smart, tough, and want the same real estate." Characters tell us without saying it that the civilian colonists on Faraway were wiped out. Heinlein delicately does not go into what will happen to the Bugs if the humans win.

But the first part of the war we see, the raid on the Skinnies, makes no sense in that sort of war, because the Skinnies make no sense in that sort of war.

The Skinnies are apparently a slippery midrank power playing both sides, and subject to political influence through punitive raids. They also provide an intelligence channel into what is making the Bugs feel the pain. All of which makes perfect sense in an ordinary great power war - but in a genocidal war of implacably hostile aliens?

The Human-Bug War should have been a pure contest for control of space, followed by the winner wiping out the loser. And no third power had motive to do anything but stay out of the way, and hope to pick up some pieces afterward - or at least stay off the winner's menu. But that would not yield a tactically interesting war story, so Heinlein told a foreground story that belongs in a very different sort of war.

Point in contrast, the War of the Ring. It too is implacable, and it has its slippery player, Saruman, so slippery he ends up falling. But he is integral to the story, and so is the military strategy of the eventual winners, an 'indirect approach' straight out of Liddell Hart. The warriors may be fighting for their homes and families in Rohan or Gondor, but from strategic perspective they are all expendable and it is all a feint, to draw off the Eye of Sauron from the one thing it should be watching for.

So really this is all about fantastic fiction 101: If you invent a background, it should fit the story you are telling. If the story involves battles, they should fit into a coherent war. Even Heinlein didn't quite get away with breaking that rule.

Related post: Back in early days I took a look at logistics.