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Archive for March, 2012

Science Hacks Our Fiction (And The Feeling Is Mutual)

Science fiction loves robots to pieces, but fortunately for genre writers and fans, the feeling is mutual. Engineers and scientists are working near-miracles in the robotics field, and the fruits of their labor are ripe for fiction’s picking. 2012 is still young by most accounts, yet this year robots have already grown tails and scales, acquired aerial speed limits, and learned to swim like a boss. Next they’ll be popping-up in swarms and colonizing our eaves. Or better yet: We’ll wear them on our hands to reduce the repetitive stress injuries we’re causing ourselves by trying to write ever-cleverer new robots into science fiction faster than actual science can render the bots of our dreams obsolete.

Probably the only way we writers can keep up with – or even hope to outpace – the current rate of robotic development is by imagining new purposes and roles for robots. It’s unlikely that scientists and engineers will ever stop endeavoring to simulate humanity and integrate androids into society, as lofty as that goal is. But if real bots must eventually look like and learn like humans, the least we can do is give readers more interesting robots to read about than the one that sweeps floors and amuses cats, or the android in the kitchen with Dinah. We already use droids for offense and defense, manufacturing, and surgery. Robotic search and rescue is a high priority for research and development, and it looks like construction may soon be crawling with bots. So what frontiers does that leave fiction to explore?

Plenty. The world already includes many different kinds of robots with different functions and forms, and the diversity of artificial ‘species’ will only continue to expand (even as natural diversity contracts at an alarming rate). As robots abound, they will inevitably need to interact well with natural species and with each other in order to satisfy human demands. They’ll need to function optimally with a minimum of human guidance, and endure at times in spite of human intervention. Face it: We abuse our tools and hack our toys. Robots need to be resilient just to survive life among humans. There’s enough fodder for stories in those last few sentences alone to keep an author busy for the length of a so-called Golden Age of fiction…

The strange android had stepped from behind an overgrown bougainvillea and disabled their Guardians before they’d even known it was there. “Remain calm, children. I won’t hurt you.” It spoke like a classic film actress, its voice a disarming combination of cultured and flinty that the boys recognized from their seventh grade film history elective but had never heard in person. Read an excerpt from ‘Parent Hack’ by Kay T. Holt

Illness and Medicine: A Google+ worldbuilding hangout report

Note: This article is a report on a live discussion I had with Janet Harriet, Harry Markov, and Glenda Pfeiffer on Google+. Our topic was Illness and medicine.

One of the fundamental underpinnings of any culture of illness and medicine is the idea of cause and effect. The way that we treat people, and the types of medicine we pursue, are based on our understanding of the causes of illness. Thus, when a people believes that illness is caused by evil spirits, the medical approach will typically address this problem directly by providing exorcisms and other spiritual approaches. When a people possesses the idea of germ theory, that fundamentally changes the approach to one of finding medicines to deal with the germs in question. There is also the possibility that medicine may be an empirical/experimental practice, which is to say that a people may have found out through fortuitous circumstance that eating a certain plant will cure headaches, or stop a certain kind of illness. In this case the cause of illness may not be considered particularly relevant. Janet felt that (at least historically) midwives have had an expertise that grows out of this kind of learn-by-experience approach. And Harry mentioned that if you have a magical healing system, the sense of cause might not even be necessary.

On the other hand, a logic of magical healing is necessary. This logic can grow out of the general logic of a magic system, or out of some kind of medically based model, but it needs to feel grounded. I mentioned how I’d worked with Janice Hardy when she was setting up some of the cultural underpinnings of the magical healing system she used in The Healing Wars. In this system, healers are able magically to perceive injury and hurt, and to heal it, but must take the pain of it into their own bodies. Then they have to push the pain out into a magical metal which stores it (and is in short supply). This metal is in turn forged into pain-shooting weapons, creating a pain-based economy. Believe me, this is a fascinating trilogy – but at the start we were looking for answers to questions like these:

Who are physicians?
Why are they chosen as doctors?
What is the role of doctors in the culture?
What are the limitations on doctors?
Is there any alternative to the magical healing system?

In fact, people who use plants and other substances to heal are considered dirty in Janice’s world, and dangerously unreliable…but the system would have seemed incomplete without them.

I believe it was Harry who mentioned that in the Anime series “Bleach” there is a character who can do what looks like healing, but is actually a localized reversal of time that reverts the damage to its previous condition. Harry shared a logistical issue he’s been dealing with in his work in progress, where magic can be used to heal, but at the same time, using magic is a drain on life force. So what happens if you try to heal yourself? It could be complex…

Glenda asked, “How do the magical healers conceptualize healing and illness?” This is an excellent question. Very often we use metaphors to describe illness; this can influence our treatment of it in addition to our general concept of its cause. Magical healers who are aware of physiology will treat people very differently from those who are not. Harry’s system has complex rituals – like recipes – for tissue repair. Thus the healer need not know too much about physiology, only how to follow the rituals, and of course he/she must have the magic ability to activate the process.

It is worth doing research when you’re dealing with illness and medicine in your writing. Don’t just gesture at what is possible. I’ve gone and looked up how to treat bruises, and I’ve looked up the different types of recognized mental illnesses, and a lot of other things as well. It’s also worth considering the scope of what doctors are called on to treat. As Harry noted, homosexuality has sometimes been considered a mental condition that requires “treatment.”

What can you alter in your world? There are lots of underlying parameters that are open to change. For example, who is more important, the doctor or the patient? Who has the power, and why? Can you ask questions about the recommended treatments, such as why and how they are to be delivered? Can you refuse treatment?

It’s important to keep in mind also that doctors are knowledge elites, much like priests. They undergo special training, and have knowledge that must be protected and treated with respect. Often they can engage the services of gatekeepers to help them accomplish this. In the case of a system based on evil spirit possession, the roles of doctor and priest can overlap. Even today, Harry told us, people worry about the “evil eye” in Bulgaria: if people look at you and think you’re pretty they will jinx you and make you feel ill; grandmothers will recommend washing your eyes three times at the door and washing the door handle and then you should be fine. Exorcisms still happen, and mental illness can sometimes be labeled as possession.

The metaphors we use to describe our bodies and our health are very resistant to change over time, and they can deeply affect our behavior. If you’re worldbuilding, this is a wonderful area to spend time developing because tiny phrases will speak volumes about the way your people think. Here are some expressions that the discussion participants shared:

“The hamster that runs my brain fell off.”
“One of your boards is loose.”
“Losing your marbles”
“Not playing with a full deck”
“You’ve let go like liver” (in Bulgaria describes lounging around lazily)
“A seagull has eaten your brain”

I wrote a post some time ago called Body Models and Metaphors, which was about how one decides when to seek medical treatment. Some people base their decision on the amount of time one has been sick, while others base their decision on specific types of changes in the health condition.

Some final things we mentioned were terminal illness and palliative care, medical insurance, and issues of public health and vaccination.

In Japan, very often the person who has a terminal illness will not be told, because it is believed that the knowledge would trouble them unnecessarily. Instead, the family will be told, and the patient simply expected to follow doctor’s orders without any knowledge of the reason. I linked to the article called “How Doctors Die” which is also relevant here, about the cultural conditions that lead us to expend so much money on torturous last-ditch treatments when people are near death. The question of medical insurance comes along with the role of government in public health in the society you’re designing. Does this society have a concept of spreading the risk across the population? How might a government respond to issues of public health when it is responsible for safeguarding public health and sponsoring treatment? In Australia, the government puts out pretty stiff advertising against unhealthful behavior that brings significant expense upon the public health system. One would expect vaccinations to be heavily supported in an environment like that, whereas in the US a lot of people have been convinced by fraudulent argumentation that vaccinations cause autism or other disorders… leading directly to public health problems such as the resurgence of diseases like measles and whooping cough. There can also be questions of whether one group in society is disproportionately affected by one health condition or another – such as Tay-Sachs disease affecting Jewish people, or royal families having a tendency to carry hemophilia. In my Varin world the noble caste is heavily inbred and so everybody has some kind of health difficulties (or if they don’t have them currently, they still might have had difficulties at birth).

Obviously there’s far more than can be covered in one hour, but I hope these thoughts have given you some inspiration.

Make me anything

I’ve written about 3D printers here before, but that was ten months ago and new things keep appearing. And they’re all so science-fictional.

How about building on the moon? Scientists at USC have come up with a plan to use lunar regolith to make concrete, and use that concrete in a giant 3D printer to build housing. Robots could do the building, so we could show up and move right in.

It’s only a tiny bit less science-fictional to use them to build structures here on Earth.

I mentioned previously that scientists were working on ways to build organs with 3D printers. How about a lower jaw? The Belgian and Dutch physicians and engineers built the jaw from fused titanium and implanted it. The elderly recipient did not have to undergo intensive reconstructive surgery, and could speak and swallow the day after receiving the implant.

My third new project isn’t as snazzy, perhaps, but I’m fascinated anyway. Using an Open Source 3D printer, Open Source modeling software, and public data from the UGSG, David Hirmes built a 3D map of the Hudson River valley. I think that’s dreadfully neat. How could the ability to readily create tangible 3D models of data be used in science? Education? Art? What else can we map, and what can be done with those maps?


(Photo by David Hirmes. Used by permission.)

3D printing has even found its way into fashion, something long-predicted by SF authors like Ian McDonald. Business is catching on too.

If you had a 3D printer, what would you make? Or do you already?

Building the Dragon II

Part II (Part I is here)

Continuing the question: will it breathe fire?

I threw out the idea of fire-breathing being a mating display, as there isn’t any biological need for a creature to breathe fire. Let’s put aside the question of why and look at how.

Hydrogen

One commenter brought up hydrogen gas, which has the double advantage of being both flammable and lighter than air — it can be used to lighten your dragon for easier flying, whether by storing it on hollow bones or a gasbag (like a bullfrog’s throat pouch, or perhaps by going all the way to designing a zeppelin-like dragon).

However, hydrogen gas isn’t as common in nature as one might hope. Generating it by splitting water is simple — if you have electricity. Electricity-generating organs do exist in nature, of course, but most of them generate only mild fields. A small, specialized organ generating enough current to split water into component gasses could work, given a ready supply of water and enough metabolic energy to generate enough gas.

Hydrogen can be produced by some forms of algae (there has been some research on that in the bio-fuels field) but those require sunlight and the inside of a dragon is notoriously dark (or can you fix that?) Some sort of symbiotic microbe in the dragon’s gut, generating hydrogen from yesterday’s lunch, may be your best bet — your dragon gets his gas with minimal effort.

One more side note: no need for your dragon to eat rocks. Hydrogen is everywhere. It’s just a matter of separating it out.

Methane

Far less sexy than hydrogen, admittedly, but methane has the advantage of being easy to generate using existing microbes. It’s generated in the gut by bacteria which require neither light nor air, and could be accumulated in a specialized organ for siphoning back toward the head for ignition.

Or, you could be really brave and let the methane continue on its way to be expelled in the usual manner with a less-than-usual ignition organ under the tail… so that both ends of your dragon are equally dangerous… hey, it could still be a heck of a mating display.

And a non-flammable option

Acid

Hydrochloric acid, as produced in the stomachs of meat-eating animals, is quite able to burn exposed skin and eat through fabrics. More potent acids like sulfuric or nitric acid aren’t produced biologically but if one can invent a tough enough organ to store the stuff, I think it could be made quite plausible.

Unlike fire being a mating display, acid spraying makes more sense as a defensive mechanism along the lines of secreting surface poisons or explosive defecation. An acid-spraying dragon may well be short on the fangs and claws and other armaments, eat things that don’t need intensive hunting and killing, and be subject to predation by bigger, scarier monsters.

Which could be just as interesting as your standard-issue dragon, of course.