Wisdom of Sci-Fi: For the Benefit of Humanity

December 3, 2018

I’ve wanted to do a Wisdom of Sci-Fi post about Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice trilogy for some time now.  I absolutely love these books, and I’ve been telling every complete stranger I meet to go read them.  These books are full of so much wisdom.

But they’re not easy to quote.  For these Sci-Fi Wisdom posts, I really like to have a nice, pithy quote.  Something that really brings an important idea into focus.  That’s kind of hard to do with the Ancillary series.  I feel like you have to be immersed in the politics and culture and language of that universe before the truly poignant moments start to make sense.

However, I did find a quote in Ancillary Mercy (book three of the series) that does a decent job summing up what this series is all about:

How can there be any benefit at all?  She tells herself that, you know, that all of it is ultimately for the benefit of humanity, that everyone has their place, their part of the plan, and sometimes some individuals just have to suffer for that greater benefit. But it’s easy to tell yourself that, isn’t it, when you’re never the one on the receiving end.

The “she” referred to here is Anaander Mianaai, the ruler of the great and powerful space empire in which these stories are set.  Through the course of the series, we’ve either heard about or witnessed the many things Mianaai and her empire have done for the alleged benefit of humanity.

I guess you could say Mianaai has a “the ends justify the means” philosophy.  It’s easy to fall into that mode of thinking, even when you’re not the ruler of a vast space empire.  Who doesn’t want to fight for the benefit of their family, friends, co-workers, etc….  These are worthy causes.  The benefit of humanity is a worthy cause.  But when you accept that the ends justify the means, when you really start to believe that, then maybe all you’re doing is making excuses.  Maybe you’re just telling yourself you’re doing what’s right, even though you know you’re doing what’s wrong, and you’re desperately trying to ignore the full consequences of your actions.

Something to think about, at least, and to be on guard against in yourself and others.

P.S.: And seriously, if you haven’t read Ancillary Justice, I highly recommend it.  It’s the best book I’ve come across in many, many years.

The Three Body Problem: The Forefront of Physics

November 5, 2018

You may have heard this quote before, or something very much like it.  It comes from nuclear physicist Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937), who said, “If you can’t explain your physics to a barmaid it is probably not very good physics.”

With that sentiment in mind, today I’d like to share another quote from the recent hit Sci-Fi novel The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the difficulties of modern physics summed up so succinctly anywhere else:

Modern theoretical models have become more and more complex, vague, and uncertain. Experimental verification has become more difficult as well.  This is a sign that the forefront of physics research seems to be hitting a wall.

In other words, modern physics has become so weird and convoluted that hardly anyone (barmaid or otherwise) can understand it.  And that means something is very wrong with modern physics.

Personally, I tend to avoid high-level physics.  Part of the reason is that, as a science fiction writer, I’m more concerned with the everyday experiences my characters have to deal with.  What’s it really like to walk around on Mars?  What sorts of gases might my non-human characters be able to breathe? What could go wrong if some hotshot space pilot tried to fly through the rings of Saturn?

But another part of it is that a lot of high-level theoretical physics stuff—things like string theory, supersymmetry, the multiverse—does sound vague and uncertain.  It feels more like guesswork than science.  Admittedly, the best guesses of a theoretical physicist are built on a firmer foundation that anything I might think up.  But still, for the purposes of science fiction, I feel like I have more leeway to make stuff up with high-level physics than I do with “ordinary” physics like the rocket equation.

I’ve heard physicists sometimes joke that someone—time travelers, aliens, God, the universe itself—is deliberately messing with us.  Maybe that’s why our latest high-tech physics experiments keep producing such confusing results. Maybe that’s why we have to keep resorting to such vague and uncertain theories to explain our discoveries.

And minor spoiler: The Three Body Problem sort of takes that joke and runs with it.  But in all seriousness, the forefront of physics does seem to have hit a wall.  At least that’s my impression, and I loved how Cixin Liu summed that feeling up in just three quick lines.

Wisdom of Sci-Fi: Silence is Often the Best Thing to Say

October 29, 2018

Frank Herbert’s Dune is among my all time favorite books.  It’s had a profound impact on my life and my writing.  I also read the other books Frank Herbert wrote for the Dune series, and I read one of the spinoff novels by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.  Those other books were… well, they didn’t have the same kind of impact.

Even so, there was one line from one of those other books that really struck a chord with me.  I remember the line well, but I had to do a little digging to figure out which book it came from (it was Chapterhouse: Dune).

Silence is often the best thing to say.

A close friend recently told me some disturbing news.  He’s going through some difficult stuff right now, and he wanted to talk about it.

Now I’ve been going through some difficult stuff myself lately.  It would have been easy to steer the conversation toward my own problems.  It also would have been easy to start handing out trite, simplistic advice.  You know, the kind of advice that sounds wonderful in theory but doesn’t work so well in practice (see just about any self help book).

But no, I remembered those words from Frank Herbert: “Silence is often the best thing to say.”  My friend wasn’t looking for advice, nor was he looking to get into a contest with me over whose problems are worse.  He just needed to talk—to vent, really.  What he needed from me was someone willing to listen.  So I kept my mouth shut and listened.

Wisdom of Sci-Fi: Only One of Each of Us

August 15, 2018

In my last Wisdom of Science Fiction post, I wrote about what it feels like to look up at the stars.  It is, for me at least, a humbling experience, a reminder of how small and insignificant I am in this big, wide universe.  I really liked how that post turned out, but I also felt like that post had missed something.  It felt incomplete.

So today I’d like to share a quote from one of my favorite episodes of the original Star Trek, an episode called “Balance of Terror.” The crew of the Enterprise find themselves in a long, drawn-out conflict with a Romulan bird of prey.  While waiting for the Romulans to make their next move, Captain Kirk briefly returns to his quarters and ends up dwelling a little too long on his own fears, self doubts, and insecurities.

Dr. McCoy comes to visit, and he has this to say to the apprehensive captain:

In this galaxy, there’s a mathematical probability of three million Earth-type planets.  And in all the universe, three million million galaxies like this.  And in all of that, and perhaps more, only one of each of us. Don’t destroy the one named Kirk.

This little speech may have been addressed to Captain Kirk, but please go ahead and replace your name for his.

I started writing this post before the traumatic events of a few weeks ago, events that left me dwelling a little too long on my own fears, doubts, and insecurities.  I saw one life lost, and another person will likely spend the rest of his life in prison as a result, all because of a stupid and petty disagreement, as I’ve come to understand it—a lot of posturing and imagined self-importance, to borrow some words from Carl Sagan.

So it seems fitting to me to return to regular blogging by finishing this post.  Looking up at the stars can be a humbling experience, but at the same time, paradoxically, it serves as a reminder of how special we all are. In all the universe, there’s only one of you, only one of me… only one of each of us.  We are unique in the truest sense of that word. Value your life.  Value the lives of others.  Don’t let such a unique gift as human life go to waste.

The Wisdom of Samwise, Sagan, and Scott Levine

July 23, 2018

I’m categorizing this as part of my Wisdom of Sci-Fi series, even though The Lord of the Rings is definitely not science fiction.  There’s a part in the third book, as Frodo and Sam are nearing the end of their journey and have ventured deep into enemy territory, when we get this description:

The land seemed full of creaking and cracking shadows and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot.  Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while.  The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.

I started thinking about this little moment after a recent post by Scott Levine (it’s an inspiring post; please go check it out!).  Scott’s been doing a lot to spread the word about light pollution, and he’s encouraging people in his community to get out, look up, and see the stars.

In his post, Scott alludes to the fact that we live in troubling times.  No, maybe Sauron’s armies aren’t marching against us, pillaging our villages and slaughtering Dwarves, Elves, and Men alike; but still, these are troubling times. But as Scott says, the stars give us a chance to get away from the news and the pessimism and all the other anxieties in our lives, just for a bit.

Personally, I’ve always found stargazing to be a humbling experience.  I have a lot of big dreams, a lot of ambitions, and also a lot of frustrations in my life. And like most people, I feel I have good reason to worry about the current state of the world.  But taking a moment to look up at night helps remind me that I am, ultimately, a very small being, and that this is a very small world.

As Carl Sagan once said in reference to the famous Pale Blue Dot photograph of Earth: “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged place in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”

None of this is to say that the problems in our lives or in the world are unimportant.  Samwise Gamgee didn’t suddenly give up on his quest after seeing that one twinkling star, nor did Mr. Frodo.  But there is something about those little, distant points of light that can help us keep things in perspective.

And if I may stay up on this soapbox for just a bit longer, I think if we were all a bit more humble, and if we could all let go of that posturing and imagined self-importance that Sagan was talking about, I suspect our very small world would be a much happier place, and many of the problems and conflicts we worry about so much would start to go away.  Maybe not all of them, but a lot of them.

P.S.: From now on, whenever I get to that scene in The Lord of the Rings, I’m going to imagine that that one star Sam sees is Arcturus.  Seriously, Scott’s post is really inspiring and thought provoking. Please go check it out.

Sci-Fi Wisdom: The Simplicity of Play

April 18, 2018

The original Star Trek TV series had a lot of truly famous episodes.  There was the one about the tribbles, and the one where Spock had a beard. Oh, and the one were Kirk fought that green lizard guy.  I love that one!  But today we’re going to talk about one of Star Trek’s less memorable episodes: the one where the crew of the Enterprise meets the White Rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

This episode just feels awkward.  I guess some people may like it, but I don’t.  Even so, there was one part near the end that really stuck with me.  It turns out (spoiler alert!) that the White Rabbit is not really the White Rabbit from Lewis Carroll’s book.  It’s a robot designed to replicate something a computer detected in an Enterprise crewmember’s imagination.

When the truth is finally revealed, we get this exchange of dialogue:

God-like Alien: This entire planet was constructed for our race of people to come and play.

Lt. Sulu: Play?  As advanced as you obviously are, and you still play?

Capt. Kirk: Yes, play, Mister Sulu.  The more complex the mind, the greater the need for the simplicity of play.

I bring this up because lately I’ve been dealing with certain real life problems, and like many people struggling with real life problems, I’ve found myself perusing the Internet for self-help articles or watching self-help videos on YouTube.  And there’s one piece of advice I keep seeing over and over again: focus on your goals and cut all the “distractions” out of your life.

By distractions, these videos and articles usually mean things like television, video games, social media… all those forms of entertainment that are self-evidently wasting your time… time that would be better spent working harder on your goals.

This, I believe, is terrible advice.  Look, obviously anything in excess can be a bad thing (there’s a Star Trek quote about that too; it’s in the tribble episode), but the biggest problem that I have, and I think we all have, with our modern world is that everything is so urgent, so demanding, and so complicated. Maybe our minds are not yet as complex as the minds of those god-like aliens on Star Trek, but still… our lives are complicated enough that we do need the simplicity of play.

So whatever your idea of “play” might be, please don’t let anyone tell you it’s a waste of time or that it’s a distraction that needs to be cut out of your life.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Lego rocket ship to build.

Sci-Fi Wisdom: Great Allowance Should Be Made

February 28, 2018

Today I’d like to share a quote from one of my all-time favorite books: Frank Herbert’s Dune.

When strangers meet, great allowance should be made for differences of custom and training.

This quote comes from the Lady Jessica during the famous dinner party scene that happens fairly early in the novel. It’s probably not among Dune’s most famous lines, but it’s a line that’s stuck with me over the years.

It’s so easy—too easy, in fact—to take offense when no offense was intended. Sometimes it seems as though there are people who are eager to be offended by something just so they have an excuse to lash out at people.

But really, we all come from different backgrounds, with different customs. We’ve all been trained to live by different social rules, and it’s not always clear—especially when meeting someone for the first time—where the boundaries of offensive and inoffensive behavior are being drawn.

I know I’ve said and done things that others found offensive, just as I know I’ve been offended by the things other people say or do. So I try to keep this little nugget of Sci-Fi wisdom in mind whenever someone, whether in real life or here on the Internet, offends me in some way.

Anyway, that’s just my two cents. Feel free to disagree, and if you do I promise not to be offended.