The Ethics of First Contact
So, suppose you discover that the small shrimp-like aliens you've discovered are not only intelligent, but they're also very tasty. Now what? That was one question posed during this panel. Another was whether aliens should be approached with an open hand or a closed fist. The former might make us feel better about ourselves, but the latter may better ensure the survival of our species. And what if the aliens decide that we're a threat to them? Should we be actively seeking extraterrestrial intelligences given that some day one might arrive to wipe us out? Of course, that horse is probably already out the door. We've already announced ourselves.
There was some discussion of first contacts in human history, which have rarely worked out well for both sides. (Shogun was mentioned as a first contact novel.) There was also discussion of the problem of recognizing, not to mention communicating with, an alien intelligence in the first place. It's one thing if the aliens arrive in a spaceship. It's quite another if you run across them swimming around in a pond on another planet looking like tasty shrimp. Or maybe dolphins.
Other novels and stories mentioned included Murray Leinster's "First Contact," Niven and Pournelle's The Mote in God's Eye, Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, and Jack McDevitt's Chindi. (I just finished Chindi a couple of weeks ago, and while I agree that McDevitt does a terrific job with the first contact aspects of his books, I get frustrated with the escalating series of harrowing escapes his characters must make because not a single one of them has a lick of common sense.)
The problem with the Singularity is that anything that occurs after it is indescribable to those living before it. This can makes things difficult for a writer in that if you plan to set a story far enough into the future you also may have to explain why the the Singularity didn't occur. Alistair Reynolds asked if it was the elephant in the room.The panel also included Vernor Vinge, Karl Schroeder, and Charles Stross. I've heard Schroeder and Stross talk about the subject at previous cons, so some of what they had to offer was familiar, but I hadn't heard Vinge talk about the subject before, so that was a plus.
There was a lot of discussion about AI, and just what kind of intelligence an AI might have. Schroeder mentioned that intelligence is not the same as identity, and there was some discussion of cognitive theory. From there the discussion moved on to humans augmenting their own intelligence. The best line of the session came from the audience after Vinge mentioned that AIs have been thirty years in the future for the last forty years. An audience member quipped that if so, then twenty years after that they'll be fusion powered. Paraphrased, but I thought it was hilarious.
Update: Video of the panel is here.
I like to sit right up next the the screen of my tv. You notice things... — Johnny Slash, Square Pegs
So too does one notice things when one rereads favorite books. This was a discussion of a few of the anomalies noticed during a careful reread of The Lord of the Rings. The panel and audience kicked around a few of these, including the problem of Glorfindel. (The problem with Glorfindel is that there appear to be two Glorfindels, since an elf of that name dies in the Silmarillion yet later appears alive and well in LotR. If there are two elves, it's the only known case of two elves having the same name. If it's the same elf, then perhaps he was only mostly dead.
The discussion was good fun, and Tom Shippey told some very funny Tolkein anecdotes. Tolkein was apparently very unpopular at Oxford because he never finished any scholarly works. He was, as Shippey put it, a niggler. There was also some discussion about the character of orcs which I found useful. As for the question of Glorfindel, my own surprise is not so much that there might be two of them, but rather that he managed to be an elf appearing in the Silmarillion whose name did NOT begin with the letter F.
Keynote: Science Fiction—the Vision and the Critics — Tom Shippey
Tom Shippey is a very amusing fellow, and so was his keynote.
Update: Audio and video of the talk are available here.
Chris Weuve talked about his experiences aboard naval vessels, and how they compare with some of the more famous examples of naval SF, mainly Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek.
According to the program, one of the questions this panel was to ask was "What's your favorite skiffy megalopolis?" No one really had one, mostly because most felt that fantasy seems to do a better job of building more fully realized cities than SF. Both Lankhmar and Ankh-Morpork were mentioned as favorites, and it was noted that one possible reason is that they were both built up organically over the course of a long series of stories. There was also the usual bashing of the suburbs by smug city dwellers, but I'm inclined to overlook it in view of the general gaiety of the occasion.
If there is intelligent life on other planets, why haven't we met them? The odds would seem to be against us not having detected them. Even if an alien civilization did not arise near us, survival of the species suggests that they will colonize like crazy. So where are they? Several possibilities were raised.
- Is space travel much, much harder than we think it is? That would slow down colonization and exploration. The expansion of a civilization under such conditions would look more like percolation along specific paths rather than general radiation out into the galaxy.
- Is space travel only a short term interest for a civilization? Civilizations may either blow themselves up or transcend faster than they travel among the stars.
- If interstellar travel turns out to be wormhole based, are we too far from the subway stop?
- Is it more than one effect, reducing the likelihood of contact geometrically?
- Is it possible we give the Fermi Paradox too much traction because it was posited by a famous scientist? No one would pay attention to the dread Jones Paradox.
- Have we been cloistered by the powers that be until we mature? Are we in a refuge? If we're in a refuge, why haven't we met any poachers?
One reason this is important is that, as was also noted in the First Contact panel, the first civilization to achieve interstellar travel gets to kill everyone else. If so, why are we still here?
This was hugely interesting, although some of it was a bit above my pay grade. However, some quality time with Wikipedia helped with my after the fact understanding. Maybe. There was a discussion of Boassian and Whorffian linguistics, and the American anthropological tradition, which is that there are so many distinctly different languages among the native peoples compared to Eurasia. (New Guinea was also mentioned for its diversity of language.) There was also discussion of the difficulty and time required to learn how to effectively communicate in an alien language (and that assumes you're not being hoaxed by alien teenagers). Writers get a lot of this wrong in SF. The biggest sin is the use of a monocultural language for an entire civilization, something that is unlikely to exist.
There is also the problem of how one shows alien speech using English, e.g., how all Romans (except for Tony Curtis) sound like Laurence Olivier. (I'm currently reading Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, and so far I think he's doing a very good job with the Spiders' dialogue.)
Books and stories mentioned included Jack Vance's The Languages of Pao, Janet Kagen's Hellspark, and Ted Chiang's "The Story of Your Life."
Among the the developments:
- New evidence was discovered regarding the origin of cosmic rays.
- The Planck Observatory was launched, and it contains the coldest object in the universe (that we know of, 0.1°K).
- The list of observed exoplanets now numbers 429. The Kepler Observatory was launched, and will do a comprehensive search for earth-like planets. A lot of weird systems have been discovered. They neither resemble our own solar system, nor what previous theory predicted. One has a gas giant so close to its sun that its "year" is only two days long. (This is probably an example of planetary migration within the system. It is suspected that a smaller migration by Jupiter and Saturn may have led to the asteroid bombardment that we see the results of on the moon.) The question is whether the weird looking systems common, which implies that our theories of solar system formation are in error, or are they just easier to detect. (Alistair Reynolds noted that finding new exoplanets can ruin things for writers who have already built fictional planets in those systems. Heh.)
- The superpositions of the three particles that make up a neutrino can be over a billion light years long.
- Near-earth asteroids are a different color than asteroids in the belt (which are redder), and this appears to be because their orbits take them close enough to the earth, i.e., inside the orbit of the moon, to use tidal effects to scrub off the stain of space weathering. Ummm... Duck?
- Spirit is still stuck, but they expect it to be able to survive through the winter, after which they will try again to extract it from the sand pit. Opportunity is slowly making its way to Endeavour Crater.
Reading: Chad Orzel
Chad read the chapter on the Quantum Zeno Effect from Teaching Physics to Your Dog, and then read the introduction to one of the chapters that was cut for length, this one on multiple dimensions and evil squirrels. Fun stuff. (At some point I need to put up a review of the book... And all the others I've read recently but haven't talked about. Sigh.)
Vinge, having painted humanity into a sort of technological corner with the Singularity, postulated some ways of avoiding the corner. It was an interesting talk. He mentioned a couple of previous Singularities (the rise of humans from animals and the pre-Cambrian explosion; Charles Stross had earlier mentioned the development of language as a Singularity). One point in favor of humanity surviving a technological Singularity is that if there is a catastrophe that destroy the machines, humanity is likely to rebuild them. However if humanity is not there, could the machines rebuild themselves?
So, why does great space opera seldom look on the sunny side? First there were some definitions set. There was much discussion about what even constituted space opera. Alastair Reynolds mentioned that space opera requires event be on a grand scale (Star Wars is, Alien is not). Eventually the panel sort of agreed that it's an "I know it when I see it" sort of thing. As to the question of darkness, Lawrence Schoen opined that while plot driven space opera tends to be dark, character driven stories tend to be lighter. He mention Bujold as an example of this.
The highlight of this panel came when Peter Weston asserted that Ian M. Banks' space operas were not dark. The reaction of most everyone else in the room was "Wait. What?" Allen Steele may have spit his water. Weston's point was that Banks taps into British humor in his books, to which the other panelists pointed out that it may be humor, but that the humor was very dark, and wasn't there all the time.
Interesting panel on how to deal with poorly socialized fans, or worse, fans with serious problems. I had an encounter with one of the former in a panel once. (Crowded room... only one seat left... OMGWTF, he took his shoes off!?!) I quietly left during the person's attempt to derail the discussion.
It's often tempting to just avoid (as I did above), and fannish communities tend to be accepting of others' foibles. The problem is that avoidance often enables the behaviors. OTOH, confronting the behavior can even bring a backlash from those in the community who feel the community should be more accepting. There is no one size fits all answer for this. The panel discussed some funny anecdotes of problems and how they were handled. It was noted that one pathology of fannish communities as a whole is avoiding dealing with such behaviors by turning them into funny stories.
(What little experience I have in dealing with stuff like this is in online communities, where it is perhaps easier to deal with. There may be filters available, and telling someone that they need to clean up their act, or even that they are no longer welcome, is probably easier by email than having to do it to the person's face.)
- I wonder about the quality of the construction of the Westin. At times during the Year in Astronomy panel the floor in Harbor 1 seemed to be vibrating like crazy, enough so to make me a little queasy. It was during the panel, so there were no large movements going on across the floor. It was very strange.
- I didn't buy anything in the hucksters area, but I wanted to. One booth had an edition of Richard Matheson's Woman in a wooden (cherry, I think) slipcase. The case was gorgeous (I never did examine the book), but I didn't have the requisite $175. However, I did examine it to see how it was put together so as to maybe construct a few on my own in my copious free time. (With all due respect to Rene Walling, there is the occasional chemist who can handle woodworking tools. Heh.)
- Speaking of chemistry, it occurred to me during Vinge's talk that synthetic routes can be thought of as algorithms for creating compounds.
- I decided to stay in a hotel this year rather than make the trek up from Rhody every day. I stayed at the Braintree Motel 6, which has the dual advantages of being both cheap and directly across the street from a Red Line station. A little more Spartan then the Westin, and almost certainly noisier, but half the price, and internet access was only 2.99 a day. Chad Orzel stayed at the Westin, and had some comments on one of the hotel's attempts to portray itself as environmentally friendly. (I would've used the fill the bucket for a specified amount of time method, myself, but there you go.)
These were most of the panels I attended. There were a couple of others I went to mostly as time fillers, and even those I found engaging, although not enough to write about them.