Sunday, 28 June 2015

Ten rules for epic scifi and fantasy

Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Dune... What do they all have in common? They are all epic. The word conjures up a large canvas, many characters, heroic deeds and sacrifices, triumph in the face of evil... it rouses us to read on and on, or wait impatiently for the next film or episode to be released.

But what makes a book or film series epic?

Here are 10 observations on successful 'epic' stories, which seem to apply to both science fiction and fantasy. What do these two genres have in common? They both enable us to temporarily escape from our lives to another imagined universe, one we might prefer to live in...

1. The canvas is large
Whether it is Middle Earth or a distant galaxy, the feeling is that the landscape we are exposed to is vast. It is not enough to be hinted at, we must go there, whether in scenes or chapters. We must feel like we have travelled the length and breadth of the known universe being depicted. This means that the hero and other characters must themselves travel, since we experience through them. A good example of a current large canvas is the various countries depicted in Game of Thrones, whose opening credits are always a joy to behold.

2. The world(s) the characters inhabit seem real
This means there must be internal coherence - the way characters (including aliens or angels) act and react must make sense in their world. At least some of the characters should come from cultures that are different to ours - different values, different codes of behavior - otherwise it just feels like a masked ball, the characters are no different to us, just in a different environment, a different backdrop, and the reader/viewer will ask 'what is the point?' In fantasy there may be angels or elves or gremlins, in science fiction there can be aliens with completely different mores and appetites.

But their behavior should make sense, it needs to have been thought through by the writer. Culture is very hard to depict, but we are very good at picking up on it, and learning how it works. As well as the culture, there needs to be attention to detail concerning the environment and artifacts used in the story. The best way is always to have these, no matter how outlandish, seem normal to the indigenous people in the story, much as we now take smart-phones for granted even though they would have seemed miraculous just twenty years ago.

3. The world(s) and culture(s) are fascinating
Even if you wouldn't want to live there, the locations - at least some of them - should seem fascinating, and worth saving. If the world depiction is too depressing or dystopian, one may wonder if it is worth bothering about. Often this means the people or fantasy/alien creatures (again, at least some of them) must be worth saving. One of the most striking/sad points for me in the Lord of the Rings series was when the elves went to help mankind at the siege of Helm's Deep, and so many of them fell in battle. They were better than us, nearly immortal but gave their lives for us. A nice example of non-human heroism, of nobility.

4. The story starts small
Epics often start small: an outback farm on a hinterland planet; the Shire; a cupboard under the stairs in a small house in a London suburb; a palace on the ocean planet of Caladan.

Once the central character is established, a major event pulls them out of their world into a larger arena. Luke Skywalker triggers a message from the drone R2D2; Frodo is entrusted with the ring by Gandalf when Bilbo Baggins tries to disappear with it; Harry meets Hagrid and discovers he is a wizard; Paul Atreides goes to Arrakis where his father is killed and he flees into the desert.

By starting small (even if there is a prologue or first scene in the larger canvas, showing or foreshadowing evil), we can identify with a relatively 'normal' character and feel 'grounded' rather then bewildered and thrown straight in the deep end. Once grounded, we are ready to venture forth.

5. The story spirals outwards
This means that the reader/viewer goes on a trip through the landscape the writer has painstakingly developed. Ideally it radiates outwards slowly, Lord of the Rings being the perfect example, Star Wars - which sometimes zips about in a dizzying fashion - less so. The Dune series is a monumental example (particularly later on), with whole books devoted to the different cultures and planets that make up the Dune universe.

6. There is a large 'cast'
It is hard to be epic if there are few characters. Also, since the landscape is vast, it will be tedious if the hero has to do everything alone. Therefore, usually there are other characters who are helping the hero, and several factions working against him or her. The trick then is to have a sufficiently large cast to make the plot work, without overwhelming the reader/viewer ("who's he again?"). Again, Tolkein did this explicitly by creating the Fellowship of the Ring, though of course there are many other characters on both sides who are worthy of note.

7. The central hero is someone we can care about
Notice how Luke, Harry, Frodo and Paul are all quite young (especially Harry)? They are still forming, at most young men, and inexperienced. Since they are on heroic journeys, they will be forged by events, they will grow during the story. It is easier to do this with relatively fresh characters, rather than say older, more cynical ones, where the theme is more likely to be redemption rather than unbridled heroism.  [By the way, we need more female heroes in epic adventures!]

8. There are at least two main villains
One is not enough. There is the villain who is there most of the time (e.g. in Lord of the Rings, Saruman, played by the late and great Christopher Lee), and the more sinister villain in the background, who we often don't see until later on or even at the end (Sauron).

For Harry he has enemies to begin with, but as the series develops it becomes Voldemort, who was behind everything from the start. For Star Wars it is Darth Vader, then the Dark Lord lurking in the background.

9. There will be loss
Given that the stakes will be high, there has to be loss. A 'soap' - and many if not most scifi or fantasy TV series fall or at least trespass into this category - is not an epic. Secondary heroes (not the main one, except in Game of Thrones), must pay the ultimate price. A lot of fantasy bends this rule (Lord of the Rings did not), but if it all ends 'happy ever after', again, it is not truly epic.

Harry Potter is good at this especially in the closing sections where a good number of his allies are culled. Bravo Ms. Rowling! Plenty fall in Dune through the course of the books, less so in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars; but there is loss.

10. The ending returns to the origin
This one is less clear, though I'm in favor of it. In Lord of the Rings, Samwise goes back to the Shire, even if Frodo can't. Harry Potter gets married and takes up 'normal' wizarding life. For Star Wars and Dune it's less clear, and the former is not done yet in any case, with Episode 7 out soon. But for me this offers the best closure, enabling me to put the book down again and come back to normal life, or leave the cinema seat and venture out into the real world . Of course the origin may have changed dramatically, but still, there is the idea of returning home in some shape or form.

In my own Eden Paradox series, I followed these ten rules, particularly the spiraling landscape, with successive books enlarging the universe into which humanity was rudely ushered. Of the four masterpieces I've been focusing on, probably Lord of the Rings and Dune are my strongest influences. Maybe in another lifetime I can write that well.

And in the meantime, I'm continually on the lookout for new 'epic' adventures, which means so much more than cool CGI and 3D, or seven hundred page tomes where 'a lot happens to a lot of people'. An epic should be a terrific story with resonating characters, a story that makes us proud to be human, makes us want to do our bit to change our world for the better, to be more like the imagined world we've just been inhabiting.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Humanity's Judgement Day

In my novel Eden's Trial, I explored how aliens might judge us as a species. Rather than doing so based on perceptions of right or wrong, they would probably base their decision on whether we were useful to the galaxy or potentially harmful to it.

Their judgement would possibly be harsh. And there would be no right of appeal.

They could look at our history, but they would also probably consider the current leaders of the human race.

Given that we're not exactly kind to our planet, and have a propensity for wars and glaring inequalities, I wanted to put something in our favor, and so the judgement comes after Earth has been ransacked by an alien race (the Q'Roth), abetted by genetically-altered humans called Alicians, led by Sister Esma. Despite this, the trial doesn't go well for what is left of mankind.

Here's an extract from the book, Eden's Trial. It is 2054. Micah is on a travelling city in deep space, trying to defend mankind, who, led by Blake, have been displaced to the planet Ourshiwann. But Micah has been travelling for six months and has not seen Blake, and does not know what has been going on while he's been away. Additionally, Micah and his friends, albeit in self-defense, have just killed a Q'Roth ambassador...

Micah stood mesmerized by the blue-green globe as it rolled in slow motion around the funnel suspended in space beneath them. It was an illusion, a macro-hologram of some sort, but looked incredibly real. The outer rim of the inverted, thundercloud-grey cone appeared hard, ceramic; he almost expected to hear a grinding noise as the replica of Earth toiled its way around the circumference. Towards its centre, the funnel descended like a gaseous whirlpool into darkness, a faint fire-light glow reaching up from its core. He didn’t need to be Level 4 to grasp the implication.
The ball resembled Earth as it had been – trawled from one of Zack’s memories, no doubt – not the post-nuclear orange dustbowl which Micah remembered most clearly. Staring at it, he felt hollow, with an attendant nausea. All that remained of his world was a pale echo of humanity’s home. He gazed upon the treasure they had squandered. It was too easy to blame everything on the Alicians. They were a contributory factor, but humanity’s inherent weaknesses had facilitated its own downfall.
He tugged his eyes away from paradise lost, and tracked across to the far side of the vista, to a graphite ball scarred with glowing scarlet rivers. Pinpricks of blood-coloured light stabbed out from the planetary simulacrum. He imagined a sea urchin whose spines had been ripped off, oozing its life force into naked space. Far above that ball, on a platform higher than the one for him, Sandy and Ramires, stood two Q’Roth warriors. They looked more powerful than the ones he’d seen before, their lower legs splayed, and their mid and upper legs folded together in an Escher-like snake pattern. They were completely immobile, but he had the sense they were somehow spitting on the humans who had slain their ambassador. To his far right, on a small disk, Zack’s Transpar stood as if to attention – like Zack never had – emphasising that this was no longer Zack, just an alien replica. Micah’s friend, and mentor, was gone.
He noted that the three parties – humans, Q’Roth, and Transpar, were at three cardinal points of the compass. He looked to the logical fourth point, but there was just empty blackness, no walls in any direction, only darkness framing his opponents, the Transpar, and the swirling funnel.
The two balls circled in the same direction, the Q’Roth home planet having moved a few degrees around the circumference as far as he could judge. Then he saw what Ramires had noticed. He backed off a pace. Between the two Q’Roth warriors, three times their height, stood a giant Q’Roth, its trapezoidal head red with black slits, the reverse of the warriors’ coloration. Its bloated, purple ribbed belly curved down to the floor supported by two ramrod straight, sturdy legs. Its four other legs looked puny by comparison, protruding from its mid-section like useless appendages. It glared at Micah and the others, excreting pure hate. Beneath its loins, half the size of the warriors, Sister Esma appeared in a burgundy cloak.
“Q’Roth queen, and Alician queen bitch,” Sandy said. “We must be on the Galactic A-list.”
He glanced at Sandy. Humour – even the sardonic wit variety – was a good sign, and he needed all of them to be on the same side. He detected a fine inverted triangular film hanging behind the Queen’s frame, and decided the Queen had wings, which wasn’t good news. Doubtless she would have liked to fly across and finish them off herself. He planted his legs firm, and stared right back. He felt Sandy’s hand on his shoulder.
A new disk arrived close to Zack’s Transpar, carrying an upright lizard, slick brown all over except for glimmering black thorns running from its crown to the tip of its tail. Its forelegs folded onto the ground so that it looked relaxed, bored even. Its smouldering yellow eyes stared forwards, though Micah had the impression it took in everything around it.
“Ukrull, the Ranger.”
Micah and the others spun around to see a lime-green Finchikta hovering behind them. Micah tried to focus internally, but nothing happened.
“Your resident has been disabled for the duration of the trial. I will translate the proceedings for you.” Its head bobbed like an albatross, though he guessed this creature was vastly more intelligent. He could barely make out the thin line where its upper third eye remained closed. When it spoke, its beak barely opened, but its two sharp orange eyes blazed. The Finchikta’s hundreds of green vermicelli-like legs did not quite reach the ground, hanging like a curtain over its nether region.
“Counsel for the defence?” Ramires asked.
“In this court, there are only truth, causes, context, and consequences,” it replied.
Micah wanted something clarified. “The funnel – what’s the significance, if the representation of our world disappears into it?”
The Finchikta bobbed slowly. “A good question. In your world you represent justice by a set of scales, which can tip either way. But that implies justice can be wrong, that verdicts can be revoked, since scales can be tipped back again. Grid justice, as you may understand it, does not entertain reversals. Once either your globe, or the Q’Roth’s, dip beneath the event horizon of the funnel, the case is lost permanently. There is no appeal. Execution of sentence cannot be stopped.”
Micah stared out at the swirling vista, suddenly concerned that maybe this wasn’t just an image. “But still, it’s only symbolic, right?” He hoped that whatever happened here, today, that Blake and the others on Ourshiwann might still have a chance to escape or at least defend themselves.
The Finchikta bobbed again, deeper, which Micah interpreted to mean he’d asked another ‘intelligent’ question. “It is mostly symbolic.”
He didn’t like the sound of that.
“Where’s the judge?” Sandy interjected.
“Arriving,” the Finchikta said, orientating its beak upwards.
They spotted something descending from way above. At first Micah couldn’t make out what was inside or riding the waves of rainbow-light, but as it got closer, he could pick out the details. Around thirty vertical rings circumscribed the main body, waves of fluorescent light surging through them. Inside the rings was a rounded hourglass shape which barely moved, except that the dark colours in the lower half sometimes squirted up into the lighter upper half of the hourglass, exchanging and sending lighter colours down through its narrow ‘waist’. It made Micah think of some night-time sea creatures he’d once seen, but his analytical mind dredged up a deeper analogy, that of the yin-yang symbol. He realised why, as he noticed a white patch in the lower, dark area, and a black one in the upper, lighter half. He recalled what his Zen master had said once about the symbol: “Most people only see black and white; they forget about the white dot in the sea of black, the black dot in the white portion. In nature there can no more be pure good than pure evil; in the heart of evil there is a speck of good, and vice versa. Nature abhors ultimate states.” Micah found the image fitting for a Galactic judge.
“At least it’s human size,” Sandy said. She placed herself between Micah and Ramires and put a hand around the waist of each. “Whatever happens, gentlemen, it’s been … interesting.”
An overwhelming impulse overtook Micah, to reach out to Sandy in some way, without offending her or Ramires. He leaned forward to her left cheek and deposited a soft kiss there. She didn’t pull back. Ramires shifted from one foot to another but said nothing.
“It has begun,” the Finchikta chirped in a crisp tone, drifting to Micah’s side. Sandy’s hand slipped from his waist, and he faced the Tla Beth, some thirty metres away, its aurora ebbing into a penumbra of rippling pastel shades.  
“You will now bear witness to the charges,” the Finchikta said.
Above the funnel, a swirling spiral of myriad stars appeared. Micah immediately recognised it as their galaxy, the Milky Way. A scalpel-sharp white mesh etched its way outwards about a third of the distance from the galaxy’s white hot centre. The pattern was complex, like some kind of blueprint, but there was a design to it. As it stretched out like vines along a number of the spiral arms, Micah realised it was the Grid, the transport system that was the paragon of Galactic infrastructure, enabling its society to function. It reached fully half the galaxy, a criss-crossing net of curving and intersecting conduits: a skeleton framing the stars. A blue dot pulsed on one of the spiral arms remote from any grid lines or nodes.
“Your planet, the one you call Earth. Here is the latest recorded image.”
His jaw fell as an image of a charred, ocean-less, dust-coloured ball loomed large in front of them. He felt as if someone had just punched him in the stomach.
“The atmosphere was purged to reduce the radioactive poisoning. It will recover faster this way. In ten thousand of your years it can be terraformed and replenished with life.”
“Bastards,” Ramires cursed.
The Finchikta peered around Micah to see Ramires. It cocked its head. “I assure you the Q’Roth have followed strict protocol. Atmospheric removal is recommended in case of nuclear fallout, once radiation levels reach a certain point, to prevent planetary rot setting in. The world is then left fallow for a set period, after which time it can be used for resettlement of a displaced race or one requiring more room.”
Sandy whirled around to the Finchikta. “It was our home! Billions of people! Not to mention all the animal life! Who gave them the right?” She pointed to the Q’Roth platform. “You’ll pay for this one day, even if it takes a thousand years!” she shouted in their direction. She added quietly, just for Micah and Ramires’ ears: “They hibernate a long time, that’s when we’ll find them.”
Micah gazed toward the judge. A line of fire unfurled from the Tla Beth like a whiplash, latching onto the head of Zack’s Transpar. 
“The judge is interrogating the human version of events.”
While the line connected the two, another dot glittered, very close to Earth. “Eden,” he whispered. The image zoomed in, so they could see this sector of space in more detail. Four blue dots zigzagged from Eden towards another distant ball he knew must be Ourshiwann, still far out on the spiral, and a long way from Grid access. A red dot intercepted one of the blues, and was extinguished. The fireline connecting the Transpar with the Tla Beth dissolved. A new one lashed out to Sister Esma, taking her by surprise. Her haughty stance wavered as her face disappeared inside a fist of fire-light. Her body arced as if she was being electrocuted, her arms and legs stretched out to maximum.
“About fucking time,” Sandy said. “Fry her, please.”
“What’s going on?” Micah asked, glancing at the Finchikta.
“She is being questioned. I have partial access as court official. She sent the one you know as Louise after you, but sabotaged her ship before she left so she could not hope to return to the Alicians. The Alicians made a deal with the Q’Roth a thousand of your years ago to dispose of humanity’s nuclear and nanotechnology, and to bring humanity to Eden. They instigated your third World War. They…” The Finchikta’s beak clamped shut.
“What?” Sandy and Micah said at the same time.
The Finchikta nudged a shoulder feather back into place. “They suppressed Level 4 emergents; co-opting those they found early enough into their order, terminating the rest.”
“This much we suspected.” Ramires said. He glanced at Sister Esma and spat over the side of the abyss. “Though we never knew the full extent.”
Micah gazed at Sister Esma’s taut body. Her face twisted in pain. Good, I hope it rips your mind apart. Abruptly the fireline dissipated, and they watched Sister Esma stagger, nearly collapsing. Her face had paled, and she looked shaken. Neither the Q’Roth warriors, nor their Queen, moved to support her. She gathered herself, and stared defiantly at Micah.
A deep, guttural voice boomed across the space between them and the Ranger: a series of growls and clicks that put Micah’s spine on edge.
“The Ranger Ukrull is testifying. He expresses surprise at finding the race calling itself humanity more advanced than he expected, based on the original Q’Roth incursion manifest. He believes humanity was on the cusp of emergence. However, the rate of progress in the last millennium was unusual by galactic development standards, so the Q’Roth couldn’t know. For him, given the escape of a number of humans, the main question is what to do with the survivors.”
“Micah, this is good isn’t it?” Sandy said. “He must be the one who saved Rashid.” 
He nodded, and addressed the Finchikta. “What else?”
The Finchikta shivered, its fine feathers fluffing momentarily before settling down. “Ah. There is an anomaly in his testament. You have…” It craned its neck and peered at Micah. Its third eye opened, a clear sapphire blue. “You have encountered the Hohash?”
“Yes. So what?”
The eye sealed again. The Finchikta moved in front of Micah, clearly more interested in this than the court case. “They are legendary. They are the Listeners, the ears of the Galaxy. They have been missing for a hundred thousand angts. They are omnipaths.”
“Omnipaths?” Micah wished his resident was online, this sounded important.
“The Hohash helped create the Finchikta Order, establishing it amongst the fifty core Grid professions known as The Torus. We worsh –”. It ruffled its feathers again. “They are very important to us.” The creature dipped its head and whole upper body slowly. Micah realised it was bowing to them. “You have been honoured.”         
Micah wished they’d brought one along. He cleared his throat. “So, who’s nex…”

Micah had no body. His mind floated like a two dimensional sheet of plazfilm, flapping on the winds of a featureless emerald space. He heard sounds: his own voice, as a child, as an adult. He perceived other sheets drifting, slip-sliding in the windless space like a dropped sheaf of paper, each one containing a scene, a memory, voices, people he knew, things he’d seen, things he’d said, more than a few he wished he hadn’t. As they tumbled, he knew the Tla Beth had complete access to his mind and memory. There was no question of lying or even trying to hide anything. He heard his mother crying, his father raging at him when he was a kid. He saw again the aerial nuclear detonations over LA, his younger self sprinting for the shelter to beat the vaporising blast wave; huddling there with his mother when he couldn’t stop shaking; his father calling him a coward; Louise about to kill him; Antonia; Sandy… He wrenched himself back from it all. It was too easy to drown in his own life. His Optron training helped him. He took the astrosurfer’s viewpoint, and witnessed thousands of sheets peppering the green sky: a man’s life dissected – his life.
He discerned a common thread in the Tla Beth search strategy: Micah had always been a misfit as a kid, had hated his father, and had been a bit of a geek during adolescence. In the defence case for humanity, his head wasn’t the best brochure available.
            Abruptly he was back in his body, in a white space. He was standing on something but couldn’t discriminate between floor and space and wall: everything was solid white. A figure emerged and walked toward him.
            “No, not you,” he heard himself say, as an image of his father approached, in his grey military uniform. At least he didn’t have that disappointed look plastered across his face.
            The image of his father spoke. “We see in humanity destruction, greed, conflict, injustice, and other disharmonious emotions associated with Level Three and below races. Such comportment is dangerous for the Grid Society. The Grid Council, chaired by the Tla Beth, sanctioned the Q’Roth request.”
            Micah knew he had to remain as dispassionate as possible; anger would be a fast-track to humanity’s final demise. “Look at our technological achievements, our advances, they –”
            “Are dangerous without mental and emotional discipline,” Sister Esma said, materialising out of the white ether. “We Alicians instigated all the major breakthroughs in the past five centuries, and –”
            “How many did you stop?” he countered. “How many DaVinci’s, Mozarts, and Qorelli’s did you snuff out? Who knows where humanity would be now if you Alicians hadn’t intervened? Your agenda was to break humanity, not nurture it, wasn’t it, Esma?”
            She flared, so that Micah knew this was no avatar, it was her.
The image of his father which the Tla Beth had chosen to utilise, held up a hand, choking off her retort. “The past cannot be undone. The Q’Roth incursion and their stewardship of the Alicians followed Grid protocol. Why is humanity worth saving? You don’t seem to believe in it yourself, Micah.”
            Micah swallowed. He wished for any other figure than his father’s, but knew that was probably intentional. He had to think fast. Blake – he was as good a role model as Micah knew. “Then look into another head. Look at a real hero, Blake. Access Zack’s memories, and see another view of mankind.”
            The Transpar materialised into the white construct, opposite Micah’s father. Its crystal surface flashed a pastiche of images, becoming a montage of Blake’s life. Micah had forgotten how much of it had been War-related. He couldn’t keep up with the almost subliminal shifting of events, but noticed that Esma apparently could. He saw her greedy ebony eyes darting about, peering into Blake’s history, scouring his soul.
            “Look!” she shouted, pointing a bony finger, a sneer of triumph swelling her face. “There! See? See how humanity’s big hero behaves? He murders his own son!”
            “This needs to be witnessed by all,” his father said.
            Micah found himself back on the platform. His legs gave way but Sandy and Ramires’ arms caught him. “Thanks,” he groaned, feeling like he needed to throw up.
            “What happened?” Sandy asked. But before he could answer, she continued. “Micah, the Earth. It’s shifted further downwards. What’s going on?”
            He sagged as he saw the blue-green globe rolling closer and faster into the maw of the funnel. Worse, a dusty orange ball followed close behind. Ourshiwann. Humanity’s fate was slipping closer to the precipice. He’d have to play the next part very carefully. Meanwhile, the Q’Roth planet rotated serenely along the outer rim. “We’re about to see exhibit A,” he said.
            Above the whirlpool, an image formed, like an outdoor holo. It was the one Sister Esma had spotted, a night-time scene played out in real time. Micah watched with a lead weight in his stomach as Blake, in battle fatigues soaked with blood, fired the slow-gun into his own son’s body, exploding him from the inside. The memory slammed into Micah as surely as if he’d stepped out in front of a hover-taxi.
He addressed the Tla Beth, his voice firm. “His name was Robert. Blake’s son had been transformed into a ghoster by the Alicians.” He pointed at Sister Esma. “He was no longer human.” Esma’s sneer faltered. Micah continued: “Please go forward in time, a few minutes,” he said. “Stop there.” He saw Sister Esma squint to see what he was referring to. In the freeze-framed view, Zack and Blake were rescuing a group of young boys from the Alician camp. Ramires also edged forward. Sandy rested a hand on Micah’s shoulder. Micah knew exactly where to look. His voice cracked. “I was there. He rescued me and fourteen others, losing his entire platoon except Zack. Blake had been too late to save his own son.”
            “It doesn’t change anything,” Esma shouted. “Where is your Blake now? What use is a hero if the rest of your precious humanity hunts him down, and imprisons him?”
            Micah frowned. “What … what are you talking about?”   
She turned toward the Ranger. “We have studied the full testimony of the Ranger Ukrull. I call upon Ukrull to testify on the most recent events on Ourshiwann. I am sure the honourable Ranger knows to which events I refer to.”
“What’s that witch going on about now?” Sandy asked.
Micah didn’t know, but had a bad feeling in his gut.
A new image formed. It was another trial, but a human one. There was no sound; there didn’t need to be. Shakirvasta and Josefsson lorded over the proceedings, with the psychologist Carlson in the dock. Carlson was gesticulating wildly. The crowd in the cramped makeshift court room appeared to be shouting too, but there was a heavy militia presence, a new uniform Micah didn’t recognise. Then he saw the image of Blake, his hands cuffed behind him, sitting in a smaller dock, surrounded by four heavies. Whenever he tried to speak he was ordered into silence, then rifle-butted when he didn’t comply.
The scene shifted. On seeing it, Sandy let out a cry and buried her head into Ramires broad shoulder. But Micah couldn’t turn away, though it wrenched his heart to stare at the limp body of Carlson, hanging from a noose in the central plaza. There was no one around. His corpse, abandoned, twisted slowly in the Esperantian breeze.
Micah’s head bowed towards the ground.
The Finchikta moved aside and the image of his father reappeared. “Do you have anything more to say in humanity’s defence, Micah?”

He heard compassion and empathy in that calm voice, like he’d never known from his actual father. Something inside him splintered, cracking him like a shell. He shook his head, unable to speak. The Tla Beth’s representation vanished. Micah’s eyes lifted to see the two globes of Earth and Ourshiwann begin their roll inwards, down the slope, towards the point of no return into the funnel, and the cauldron of fire deep within.

The Eden Paradox Tetralogy
The Eden Paradox where we find we are not alone, and have been betrayed
Eden's Trial where we are put on trial for our right to exist
Eden's Revenge where it gets personal
Eden's Endgame where it all ends

Monday, 15 June 2015

Is Artificial Intelligence a smart idea?

I watched Ex Machina last night, and it got me thinking again about Artificial Intelligence, and what it will mean for humanity. Will it be a boon, heralding robots and thinking machines that can help us, or will it signal the death knell for mankind, a new intelligence that, as the character Nathan notes in the film, will look upon us as we do Neanderthals, and represent a singularity in our timeline?

I used to code, a long time ago, and later on worked with coders who developed cognitive simulations of the way we think about certain tasks. Nothing remotely emotional - just how experts used knowledge and heuristics to solve problems, from medical diagnoses to nuclear power crises to air traffic controllers avoiding mid-air collisions. This much can be done. But humans are still better at it. And the cognitive systems have no awareness, they are just tools, just another program that might one day support us and help us out in a tight spot.

The recent film about the Enigma machine, developed to crack war-time communication codes, highlighted one of the brightest brains in the last century. But his legacy is not only modern computers, it is also a burning question about Artificial intelligence, and this question occupies a large part of the theme of Ex Machina - how do you tell if a machine has intelligence and self-awareness?

The problem is that we inevitably consider intelligence as human intelligence. It is not merely intellect. There is emotional intelligence as well as logic, the difference used to death in all sorts of tropes from Star Trek's Spock to robots and androids in countless films and books. The latter are seen as unemotional, the usual sub-text being that this makes their intelligence somehow inferior and flawed, and that humans are better. But is this simply hubris on our part?

Humans have organs, and hormones, that account for the emotional part of us, the part that is difficult to understand and, ultimately, program. Can a machine ever have emotions? It can be programmed to act emotionally - maybe - but is this the same thing? The android David in the film Prometheus is a more contemporary depiction of a self-aware, questioning thinking machine, but he feels nothing emotionally, and is ultimately nihilistic, and there is a (presumably intentional) feeling of emptiness about him. An android that has no emotions has no drive, no goal. One can wonder what the point of existence would be. Of course, a drive, a reason to go on, can be programmed, but if the intelligence is self-aware, then sooner or later  self-questioning will take place, and self-determination.

Perhaps we should change the ages-old epithet from

I think, therefore I am


I think and feel, therefore I am

Can we know what a truly independent artificial intelligence might want, other than what we program it to want? If we're lucky, it might want to look after us, or, luckier still, might venture outwards and leave us to our own devices. Screenwriters, from Terminator to the Matrix, usually portray a darker scenario, however, where the machines will seek to replace us, becoming the next generation, homo machinas.

I grew up reading and loving Isaac Asimov's Robot series, but the simple idea that 'do no harm to humans' could be hard-coded seems nowadays to be a stretch. Asimov himself spent many books exploring this idea, trying to find ways in which the robots in question could out-manoeuver this primary constraint in their programming.

In my own writing, I focused on this question in Eden's Endgame. Near the start of the book, two people are sent to retrieve a remnant of a long dormant machine race, one that almost took over the galaxy two million years earlier. This race, the Xera, was put down at great cost, but in Endgame they are woken up, and begin to rise again.

One question that is asked in the film Ex Machina, and a number of others, is why we try to create something more intelligent than us, an evidently questionable pursuit. The answers range from 'because we can' to (the one in the film, one programmer to another), 'wouldn't you if you could'? In our case, there is clearly a distinction between intelligence and wisdom.

But in this vein, I use a scientist, Pierre, in the book, as the one who tries to liaise with the Xera, and ultimately tries to convince them not to wage war on 'impure, chaotic organic species', including humans. Because he is a scientist, Pierre is fascinated by the Xera, indeed he is drawn to them, and so is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. As a scientist, he values intelligence, the ability to be able to think and comprehend, above all else. But the Xera need something else from him. Pierre knows they don't care about him, per se. But he has an ace up his sleeve. The chapter is called 'Goliaths', and Pierre is David... Here's an extract from the chapter, where Pierre crosses the threshold.

Pierre stood on the surface of the Machine asteroid as it hurtled through space. He was on an intercept course with one of Qorall’s Orbs, standing inside a small bubble of tailored atmosphere shielding him from cold vacuum and hard radiation. The asteroid-sized Machine remnant – all that was left of the race after Hellera’s deception – was solid metal, so there was nowhere else for him to go. The ground beneath him was flat and featureless. Since his childhood, he’d always looked to the stars; they had been his friends, the constellations a landscape sketching his hopes and dreams. But it was different seeing them this way, with the naked eye as opposed to via a screen or porthole back on Ukrull’s Ice Pick, or through layers of atmosphere back on Earth. Now the stars looked starker, stabbing at him through silent space. Somehow they felt hostile, accusing, as if they knew what he was planning. He started walking on the grainy metal surface. There was nowhere to go, but he needed to move to help him think this through one last time, before there was no going back.
He stopped walking, squatted down, and touched the hard surface. Did he trust the Machines? Of course not. That made no sense, they were logical creatures. Jen had used the right words – it needed to be hard-coded into them. But how? The Machines were in survival mode. Kalaran had awoken them, Hellera had used them and tried to eliminate them immediately afterwards. But the Machines would not feel anger, nor would they feel any remorse if they took over the galaxy by killing a few trillion organics, and not just those turned by Qorall. For the Machines, it was all about utility, propagation, and logical order rather than chaos. The idea of a new galaxy was an enticing prospect, and they had originally been designed by the Tla Beth to explore remote galaxies, but there was a lot of risk, and why should they leave this galaxy when they had what they needed here? Qorall's Orbs were a significant threat to the Machines, but if they could be destroyed, then the Machines could sit and wait out the final battle between Qorall and Hellera and then make their move.
            Pure, cold logic.
            The ground beneath his fingers rippled, and he glanced upwards, and saw it, a star that looked brighter than any other, with a golden light. Qorall's Orb, come to destroy the Machines, and him. He stood up, and opened his mind.
             He tensed. This was the agreement. He wouldn’t sign the contract with blood, but with his DNA, and his organic mind’s force of will. That’s what they needed to survive and defeat the Orb, which was nothing more than a super-virus that worked by re-writing organic software. Most organic species – following Kalaran’s template – had strong will, but their emotional and intellectual ‘software’ was beneath their conscious control, and so was vulnerable; their coding was weak, so re-coding via the Orbs was easy. In contrast, the Machine race’s coding was very strong, ultra-disciplined, and had inbuilt intelligent monitoring and resilience. But the Machines lacked any organic sense of will; they had been designed by the Tla Beth to be servants, and so it was only a matter of time before the Orb exploited such a basic flaw, a trap-door in their metal-clad coding.
That was where Pierre came in. But there was the risk: he was about to try to help a dangerous force become even more powerful. The lesser of two evils? He couldn’t be sure. But he had made up his mind, he was committed.
He felt pressure on his feet, and glanced down. It had begun. Black metal vines crawled up his calves, his feet and ankles already encased. There was no turning back now. He took one last look at the Orb, at the stars he knew he would never see again this way, then closed his eyes, and held the vision of Kat and Petra in his mind, the only two people who had ever meant anything to him, knowing he would never meet them again. The metal around his legs invaded his flesh, freezing pinpricks stabbing into him, making his upper body shake as his core temperature freefell. He opened his eyes, gasped and cried out. He could no longer feel his legs, only a wave of ice creeping up his chest. He lifted his arms in front of him, watched metal gloves wrap around his hands, and felt the ice-metal on his neck. Whichever way he analysed it, he was dying, there would be no more Pierre after this. He just had time to taste the names on his lips of the two women who had meant more to him than anyone else. He spoke their names into the echoless void.
“Petra, Kat, forgive me.”

He could no longer see, the metal ice tightening like a tourniquet around his face, freezing tendrils drilling through his skull, skewering inwards. Pierre concentrated on one last thought, with all his being, with all his will, one single line of code.

© Barry Kirwan |
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