*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009


The idea here is a riff on 'Solaris', the book.  Yes, I have seen the Soderburgh movie, and if it were not a remake of a seminal Soviet movie, or of a far deeper Polish novel, it could have been judged as a decent movie on its own.  I saw it before I read the book, and I have not seen the Soviet movie yet.  I had heard of the Soviet movie before it was remade in Hollywood. It's very difficult to mine a new vein in science fiction, if not harder here than elsewhere.  The saw is that 'science fiction is about ideas', and because of that, or because so many of the early pulp works were novellas or shorter, there's a prodigious literature of ideas.  I may not be coming up with anything entirely new, but I hope I am not merely derivative.

Reduced, my story is an interstellar voyage tale, that includes the possible discovery of life.  Expended, it is about how a human, alone, reacts to something they cannot process in any way.  Much like 'Solaris', right?  There will be many differences in the technologies, which I will keep 'black-boxed' as much as possible, since they are not the point of the story.  There will be many differences in the state of the Earth and humanity left behind in the Terran solar system, and the purpose of the visit, which will be far more utilitarian than in 'Solaris'.  There will be differences in how the alieness of the planet's possible life is manifested.  The fundamental difference will be that the human reaction to alien life is recoil.

Why wouldn't it be? Doesn't it seem that the more alien the Terran environment, the more repulsive the way life manifests itself?  Disgust is an effective adaptation so that we do not try to eat insects that live in feces, among other dangers, and an adaptation that will not leave us.  Come up with your own examples, but it would have to be thus: we evolved in particular environments, that although varied are all relatively similar: no ocean sulphur vents, mammalian colons or guano deposits.  If those are so alien to us, on this planet, how much more alien will alien life be?  This field has been mined, but to different purposes: in the book and Soviet movie of 'Solaris' to illustrate how impossible communication would be, and other alienating effects on the human psyche; and in Star Trek to do a pastiche of the communication issues only.  I just don't think that would be the primary problem.

We'll never discover alien life, unless alien life is so widely seeded that we can find it soon in our own solar system.  Soon, because our time looks suicidically limited.  Nearby, because the physics just don't support inter-stellar travel for humans, or for our technology.  I can imagine we will, because that's the prerogative of writing science fiction.  Science fiction has always been about present humans.  I will not indulge meeting intelligent life, because there's too long a string of infinitesimal chances that would get one of us to an alien planet with life on it that I won't throw two more infinitesimal chances on that such life is recognizably intelligent, and concurrent with our species.

The details of the human inter-stellar technology do not matter, except that apart from the miracle of such travel at all, I'm not going to add many more: and there will be no spirituality or voodoo.  The observable universe is plenty interesting enough that we don't need to use our tiny human imaginations to fill in the gaps we are too lazy to properly investigate.*  The technology will limit the freedom of the protagonist in many ways.  It will take an eon to get there, so most of it will be spent in suspended-animation.  Two-way communication with Earth will not exist, for the same reason.  The primary mission will be to send a message to Earth, with no way of knowing if any humans will receive it, or be able to use it, because the gap from departure from Earth, to his message reaching Earth from the other planet, will take anything from a century to a millenia.  He'll be alone, because that far reduces the payload, the fuel and the mission-complications of ship-borne society, and allows the organization that sent him to put one egg in each of many baskets, since it's such a faint-hope proposition to look for another human-inhabitable planet.

This creates unique problems for the mission.
How do you communicate to an Earth a millenia older than the one you left?
- Your message is reduced to a 'bother to come', or no message if 'don't bother to come'.  You send a repeating signal.  That, not the content, is what makes the signal known.  The simple way to make it a human-to-human message is not just to use primes, which another intelligence might, but to do something like prime-plus-one**, as it is imaginable for a human organization to remember to look for that signal a millenia later.
- The probe cannot be large enough to send a signal to Earth for any duration, and remain small enough to overcome the physics of near-to-light travel.  You have to use the materials of the target system, without making that system uninhabitable for the found life, or the humans who would come later.  Some easy way to lens some of the star's light or radio waves?
- Though humanity may/not have spread from Earth, the only known common stellar reference point for humans is Earth.  No matter its condition, that's where you have to send the signal.
- The pilot/probe would have to be cybernetic.  Humans decay too quickly and require far too much life-support.  AI will never be up to the task.  There are ethical issues subdued by a combination of volunteerism and terminal-condition (non-neural).
- The probe sends smaller probes to different parts of the planet, but remains in orbit for practical purposes as well as to avoid contaminating the planet with Terran biology.

This creates unique psychological issues for the pilot.
Won't he go mad?  He is alone, and no longer has most of his physical body.
- Ultimately, yes.
- Mission designers and astronauts are as arrogant as any humans, and will plan many ways around this. They will ultimately fail.
- The main way to keep him sane, and I know this is in 'The Matrix', is to create a virtual-reality environment to retreat into when needed.  This will be normal for all humans when he is sent, since the Terran natural environment will be long gone.
- As he is cybernetic, he can choose also to be virtually present in the vantage point of the orbiting mother-probe, as well as the planetary-landers.
- There is an interesting conflict with making it possible for him to commit suicide, or not: ethically, and from a mission-centred point of view.
- Xenobiology will prove to have been an exercise with no more validity than a Borgesian fiction.

However, the overview of the story is that you cannot expect you know what you will find, when you explore, and that the universe not only doesn't suit human purposes, but has none.  Human purposes are entirely tied to the environment in which humanity evolved, which once gone, removes all meaning from continued existence.

*That should be a motto.
**I think I prefer Fibonacci numbers.

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