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Culture Scicomm Science

‘Hunters’, sci-fi and pseudoscience

One of the ways in which pseudoscience is connected to authoritarian governments is through its newfound purpose and duty to supply an alternate intellectual tradition that subsumes science as well as culminates in the identitarian superiority of a race, culture or ethnic group. In return, aspects of the tradition are empowered by the regime both to legitimise it and to catalyse its adoption by the proverbial masses, tying faith in its precepts with agency, and of course giving itself divine sanction to rule.

The readers of this blog will recognise the spiritual features of Hindutva that the Bharatiya Janata Party regularly draws on that fit the bill. A German rocket scientist named Willy Ley who emigrated to the US before World War II published an essay entitled ‘Pseudoscience in Naziland’ in 1947, in which he describes the sort of crazy beliefs that prepared the ground with other conditions for the advent of Nazism.

In Hunters, the Amazon Prime show about Jewish Nazi-hunters in 1970s America, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s sci-fi novel The Coming Race (1871) finds brief mention as a guiding text for neo-Nazis. In the novel, a subterranean race of angelic humanoids has acquired great power and superhuman abilities by manipulating a magical substance called Vril, and threatens to rise to the surface and destroy the human race one day.

Bulwer-Lytton also wrote that Vril alludes to electricity (i.e. the flow of electrons) and that The Coming Race is an allegory about how an older generation of people finds itself culturally and political incompatible with a new world order powered by electric power. (At the same time, he believed these forces were a subset of the aether, so to speak.) In a letter to John Forster on March 20, 1870 – precisely 150 years ago in twelve days – Bulwer-Lytton wrote:

I did not mean Vril for mesmerism, but for electricity, developed into uses as yet only dimly guessed, and including whatever there may be genuine in mesmerism, which I hold to be a mere branch current of the one great fluid pervading all nature. I am by no means, however, wedded to Vril, if you can suggest anything else to carry out this meaning – namely, that the coming race, though akin to us, has nevertheless acquired by hereditary transmission, etc., certain distinctions which make it a different species, and contains powers which we could not attain through a slow growth of time’ so that this race would not amalgamate with, but destroy us.

And yet this race, being in many respects better and milder than we are, ought not to be represented terrible, except through the impossibility of our tolerating them or they tolerating us, and they possess some powers of destruction denied to ourselves.

The collection of letters is available here.

In Bulwer-Lytton’s conception, higher technological prowess was born of hereditary traits. In a previous letter, dated March 15, Bulwer-Lytton had written to Forster:

The [manuscript] does not press for publication, so you can keep it during your excursion  and think over it among the other moonstricken productions which may have more professional demand on your attention. The only important point is to keen in view the Darwinian proposition that a coming race is destined to supplant our races, that such a race would be very gradually formed, and be indeed a new species developing itself out of our old one, that this process would be invisible to our eyes, and therefore in some region unknown to us.

So this is not a simple confusion or innocent ignorance. Bulwer-Lytton’s attribution of the invention of electricity to genetic ability was later appropriated by interwar German socialists.

This said, I’m not sure how much I can read into the reimagination of technological ability as a consequence of evolution or racial superiority because another part of Bulwer-Lytton’s letters suggests his example of electricity was incidental: “… in the course of the development [of the new species], the coming race will have acquired some peculiarities so distinct from our ways … and certain destructive powers which our science could not enable us to attain to, or cope with. Therefore, the idea of electrical power occurred to me, but some other might occur to you.”

Now, according to Ley, the Society for Truth believed Vril to be a real thing and used its existence to explain how the Britons created their empire. I don’t know how much stock Adolf Hitler and his “shites of the round table” (to quote from Hunters) placed in this idea but the parallels must have been inescapable – especially so since Ley also writes that not just any pseudoscientific belief could have supported Hitler’s rise nor have acquired his patronage. Instead, the beliefs had to be culturally specific to Germany, pandering to local folklore and provincialism.

Without commenting on whether this conclusion would apply to Fascism 2.0 in a world with the internet, civil aviation and computerised banking, and in naïve spite of history’s fondness for repeating itself and the politico-corporate-media complex, I wonder what lessons there are here – if any – for science educators, a people already caught between political anti-intellectualism and a stronger sense of their purpose in an intellectually debilitated society.

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Culture Science

Sci-fi past the science

There’s an interesting remark in the introductory portion of this article by Zeynep Tufekci (emphasis added):

At its best, though, science fiction is a brilliant vehicle for exploring not the far future or the scientifically implausible but the interactions among science, technology and society. The what-if scenarios it poses can allow us to understand our own societies better, and sometimes that’s best done by dispensing with scientific plausibility.

Given the context, such plausibility is likely predicated on the set of all pieces of knowledge minus the set of the unknown-unknown. This in turn indicates a significant divergence between scientific knowledge and knowledge of human society, philosophies and culture as we progress into the future, at least to the extent that there is a belief in the present that scientific knowledge already trails our knowledge of the sociological and political components required to build a more equitable society.

This is pithy and non-trivial at the same time: pithy because the statement reaffirms the truism that science in and of itself lacks the moral centrifuge to separate good from bad, and non-trivial because it refutes the technoptimism that guides Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, (the late) Paul Allen, etc.

If you superimposed this condition on sci-fi the genre, it becomes clear that Isaac Asimov’s and Arthur Clarke’s works – which the world’s tech billionaires claim to have been inspired by in their pursuit of interplanetary human spaceflight, as Tufekci writes – were less about strengthening the role of science and technology in our lives and more about rendering it transparent, so we can look past the gadgets and the gadgetry towards the social structures they’re embedded in.

In effect, Tufekci continues:

Science fiction is sometimes denigrated as escapist literature, but the best examples of it are exactly the opposite.

She argues in her short article, more of a long note, that this alternative reading of sci-fi and its purpose could encourage the billionaires to retool their ambitions and think about making life better on Earth. Food for thought, especially at the start of a new decade when there seems to be a blanket lien to hope – although I very much doubt the aspirations of Musk, Bezos and others were nurtured about such a simple fulcrum.

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Culture

Hard sci-fi

Come November, I will be at the Bangalore Literary Festival in conversation with Sri Lankan sci-fi author Navin Weeraratne. I am told Navin – “like you,” according to one of the organisers – is a proponent of hard sci-fi, the science fiction subgenre that draws upon legitimate scientific ideas and principles.

A less obsessive reader might not mind the difference, especially if the author’s invitation to suspend disbelief is smooth. But I draw a thick line between hard and soft sci-fi because science is more than, rather quite different from, technology, and I believe the ‘sci-fi’ label is warranted only if the principles of science are carried over as well, into everything from world-building to character-building. Heck, the act – and art – of deriving consequences from a finite set of first principles in a different universe and for a set of fictitious characters could be the point of a book in itself.

Soft sci-fi, on the other hand, is quite fond of inventing technologies to depict fantastic landscapes and cultures and is closer to fantasy fiction than to sci-fi.

Admittedly these are only lines in the sand but I believe the virtues of sci-fi could be extended to include many kinds of storytelling that the typical sci-fi author, usually dabbling in the softer parts of the subgenre, may not be inclined to explore.

Now, while I’ve expressed this view in public on a few occasions of late, I don’t know enough about the subgenre and its literary, historical and philosophical virtues – certainly not enough to speak to Navin Weeraratne on stage. The man has nine books to his name! Fortunately the event is over a month away and I have time to prepare. I dearly hope I don’t make a fool of myself onstage, in a room full of the ‘literary types’.

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Life notes

The Sea

Big Fish walked into a wall. His large nose tried to penetrate the digital concrete first. Of course, it went in for a second, but Marcus recomputed the algorithm, and it jumped back out. The impact of its return threw Big Fish’s head back, and with it, his body stumbled back, too. The wall hadn’t been there before. Its appearance was, as far as Big Fish was concerned, inexplicable. And so, he turned around to check if other walls had been virtualized as well. Nope. Just this one. What business does a wall have being where it shouldn’t belong? But here it was.

He turned into the door on his left and looked around. Nothing was amiss. He walked back out and tried another door on the opposite. All desks were in place, computers were beeping, people were walking around, not minding his intrusion. It was surreal, but Big Fish didn’t mind. Surreal was normal. That’s how he liked them to be. He walked back out. There the wall was again. Has Marcus got something wrong? He poked a finger into the smooth white surface. It was solid, just like all walls were.

He turned back and walked the way he had come. Right, left, right, left, right, left, left, down a flight of stairs, straight out, left, left, left, straight out once more, left, right… and there the canteen was. The building was the way it had once been. Marcus was alright, which meant the wall had to be, too. But it couldn’t be – it didn’t belong there. He walked back up once more to check. Left, right, straight, right, right, right, straight, up a flight of stairs, right, right, left, right, left, right… and there’s the bloody wall again!

Big Fish had to log out. He walked into the Dump. The room was empty. No queues were present ahead of the Lovers, no bipolar behavior, no assurances being whispered to the new kids or hysterical religious clerks talking about being born again. Just him, so he walked up to the first of the two Lovers, and stood under it. When he decided he was ready, Big Fish pushed the green button next to him. The green guillotine came singing down.

The blade of the machine was so sharp, it whistled as it parted an invisible curtain of air. The screech, however, was music to Big Fish’s ears. It meant exiting the belly of Marcus. It meant reality was coming. As soon as the edge touched his head, Marcus came noiselessly to life in the Dump. His thoughts, memories, feelings, emotions, scars, scalds, bruises, cuts, posture, and many other state-properties besides, were simultaneously and almost instantaneously recorded as a stream of numbers. Once the input had been consummated with an acknowledgment, he vanished.

When he stepped out of his booth, Big Fish saw Older Fish staring at him from across the road. His stare was blank, hollow, waiting for the first seed of doubt from Big Fish. Big Fish, however, didn’t say anything. Older Fish stared for a minute more, and then walked away. Big Fish continued to watch Older Fish, even as he walked away. Had he seen the wall, too? Just to make sure, he began to follow the gaunt, old man. The stalking didn’t last long, however.

He watched as Older Fish turned around and pointed a gun at Big Fish’s temple. The barrel of the weapon was made of silver. My gun. How did Older Fish find my gun? A second later, Older Fish pointed the weapon into his own mouth and fired. Flecks of flesh, shards of bone, shavings of hair, dollops of blood… all that later, Older Fish fell to the ground. In a daze, Big Fish ran up to the still figure and stared out. Older Fish’s eyes were open, the skin around them slowly loosening, the wrinkles fading.

Big Fish saw them gradually droop off. Time had ended. The world was crucified to the splayed form of Older Fish. The commotion around him happened in a universe all of its own. The lights flashed around him, seemed to bend away from his bent form, curving along the walls of their reality, staying carefully away from his arrested one. The sounds came and went, like stupid matadors evading raging bulls, until the tinnitus came, silencing everything else but the sound of his thoughts. Only silence prevailed.

When darkness settled, Big Fish was able to move again. My friend, he lamented. He opened his eyes and found himself seating in a moving ambulance. Where are we going? There was no answer. Big Fish realized he was thinking his questions. When he tried, though, his tongue refused to loosen, to wrap itself around the vacant bursts of air erupting out his throat. Am I mute? He tried again.

“Where are… we…”

“To the Marxis HQ.”

Marxis HQ. The cradle of Marcus. The unuttered mention of that name brought him back. What were the chances of walking into a wall-that-shouldn’t-have-been-there and Older Fish killing himself? The van swung this way and that. Big Fish steadied himself by holding on to the railing running underneath the windows. His thoughts, however, were firmly anchored to the wall. Big Fish was sure it had something to do with Older Fish’s suicide.

Had Older Fish seen the wall? If he had, why would he have killed himself? Did it disturb him? When was the last time a wall disturbed anyone to their death? Could Older Fish have seen anything on the other side of the wall? Did Older Fish walk into the space on the other side of the wall? What could have been on the other side of the wall? Had Marcus done something it shouldn’t have? Was that why Big Fish was being ferried to the Marxis?

“I don’t know.”

“Huh?”

“Mr. ——-, the reasons behind your presence being required at Marxis HQ were not divulged to us.”

I’m not mute, then. Big Fish laughed. He didn’t know himself to be thinking out loud. The others all looked at him. Big Fish didn’t bother. He settled back to think of Marcus once more. At first, his thoughts strained to comprehend why Marcus was the focus of their attention. Simultaneously, Older Fish’s death evaded the grasp of his consciousness. In the company of people, he felt he had to maintain composure. Composure be damned. Yet, tears refused to flow. Sorrow remained reluctant.

The van eased to a halt. A nurse stepped up and opened the door, Big Fish got down. One of the medics held on to his forearm and led him inside a large atrium. After a short walk that began with stepping inside a door and ended with stepped out of another – What was that? Did I just step through a wall? – Big Fish was left alone outside a door: “Armada” it said. He opened the door and looked inside. A long, severely rectangular hall yawned in front of him. At the other end, almost a hundred feet away, sat a man in a yellow chair, most of his body hidden behind a massive table.

“Please come in. My name is Marxis Maccord. I apologise for this inconvenience, but your presence here today is important to us. I know what you’re thinking, Mr. ———, but before you say anything, let me only say this: what happened had both nothing and everything to do with Marcus. It had nothing to do with Marcus because it wasn’t Marcus’ fault you walked into a wall and almost broke your virtual nose. It had nothing to do with Marcus because it wasn’t Marcus that precipitated in Mr. ———-‘s death. At the same time, it had everything to do with Marcus because, hadn’t it been for Marcus, you wouldn’t have walked into a wall. Hadn’t it been for Marcus, Mr. ———- wouldn’t have killed himself.”

Silence. What is this dolt trying to tell me? That they’re not going to take responsibility for what Marcus did? Why can’t they just get to the point, the idiots?! Bah! “I understand what you’re saying, Mr. Maccord. You’re saying you’re going to let Marxis Corp. be held responsible for Marcus’s actions, and that’s fine by–”

“Oh, Mr. ————, I’m not saying that all! In fact, I’m not going to assume responsibility either. You see, Mr. ————, I’m going to let you decide. I’m going to let you decide on the basis of what you hear in this room as to who’s culpable. Then… well, then, we’ll take things from there, shall we?”

Ah! There it is! Blah, blah, blah! We didn’t do this, we didn’t do that! Then again, we know this could’ve been done, that could’ve been done. Then, shit happens, let us go. Your call now. Bullshit! “Mr. Maccord, if you will excuse me, I have made my decision and would like for you to listen to it. I don’t care what Marcus did or didn’t do… and even if I want to figure it out, I don’t think I want to start here.”

Big Fish turned to leave. “Mr. ———–, your friend put the wall there because it scared him that someone might find something out.” Big Fish stopped just before the door. “Mr. ————, the wall wasn’t there a second before you walked into it. It was computed into existence by your friend because you were trespassing into his thoughts. If you had crossed over into the other side, you would have witnessed something… something we can only imagine would have been devastating for him in some way.”

Marxis Maccord stood up. With a start, Big Fish noticed that the man wasn’t standing on his legs. Instead, his torso, his neck and his head were floating in the air. From the other end of the hall, they looked like a macabre assemblage of body parts, a jigsaw held upright by simple equilibrium, the subtle cracks visible along the seam of their contours in the light borrowed from the city that towered around Marxis Corp. Him? It? It. “Mr. ————, you are downstairs, standing in booth SP-8742, your thoughts logged out of reality and into this virtual one.”

Big Fish hadn’t said anything for a while. The transition had been so smooth. Big Fish hadn’t noticed a thing when we entered the first door. It was like walking through, past, a veil. It was an effortless endeavour, a flattering gesture that drew the mind out of its body. Maccord continued to talk. “Say hello to Marcus II, or, as we call it, MarQ. When you stepped into that first door, your reality was suspended just as ours took over. Once the switch was complete, your limp body was lain on a bed and transferred down a shaft 3,000 feet deep, under this building. You are now lying sound asleep, dreaming about this conversation… if that.”

“In a world where moving in and out of reality is so easy, picking one over the other simply on the basis of precedence will gradually, but surely, turn a meaningless argument. It is antecedence that will make sense, more and more sense. Your friend, Mr. ————, understood that.”

Big Fish finally had something to say. “And why is that important, Mr. Maccord?” He felt stupid about asking a question, after having asked it, the answer to which might have come his way anyway. However, Big Fish was being left with a growing sense of loneliness. He was feeling like a grain of salt in the sea, moving with currents both warm and cold, possessing only a vintage power to evoke memories that lay locked up somewhere in the folds of the past. The sea couldn’t taste him, Big Fish couldn’t comprehend the sea. They had devoured each other. They were devouring each other.

Maccord responded quickly. “Marcus is the supercomputer that computes the virtual reality of your old organization into existence. You log in and out everyday doing work that exists only as electromagnetic wisps in the air, shooting to and fro between antennae, materialised only when called upon. Marcus tracks all your virtual initiatives, transactions, and assessments. You know all this. However, what you don’t know is that the reality Marcus computes is not based on extant blueprints or schematics. It is based on your memories.”

At that moment, it hit Big Fish. He had wondered many a time about how Marcus knew everything about the place where he worked. The ability to log in and out of reality – or realities? – gave the machine access to people’s memories. This means the architecture is the least common denominator of all our memories of the place. “You’re right.” Maccord’s observation startled him. “You see, Mr. ———–, MarQ has computed me, and MarQ has computed you. However, I own MarQ, which means it answers to me. Before it transliterates your thoughts into sounds, they are relayed to me.”

He can read my thoughts! “Oh yes, Mr. ————, I well can. And now that I know that you know that the place is the least common denominator of all your knowledge, the wall could’ve been there only if all of you had known about it. However, the wall hadn’t been there in the first place. Which meant Marcus had computed something that had happened fairly recently. Then again, if the LCD hypothesis is anything to go by, then the wall shouldn’t have been there because you continue to be surprised about its presence. Ergo, on the other side of the wall was something you already knew about, but not yet as the source of a problem.”

It was hard for Big Fish to resist thinking anything at all at first, but he did try. When he eventually failed, questions flowed into his head like water seeping through cracks in a bulging dam, simply unable to contain a flooding river. The questions, at first, cascaded through in streamlined sheets, and then as gurgling fountains, and then as jets that frayed into uncertainty, and then as a coalition that flooded his mind.

Big Fish understood this was the end of the “interaction”, that Marxis Maccord had been waiting for this to happen since the beginning. Everyone would have wanted to know why Older Fish killed himself. To get to the bottom of that, and to exculpate Marcus, a reason had to be found. Marcus had known we’d come to this. He let me hit the wall late. He let me know that none else found it odd because they’d been used to it. Marcus had let me be surprised. Marcus knew something was going to happen. And when it did, Marcus knew I’d be brought into its hungry womb to be judged… to be devoured by the sea.

“Mr. Maccord?”

“Yes, Mr. ———-?”

“Take what you need.”

“I already am, Mr. ———-.”

Categories
Science

Universality of the Lotka-Volterra equations

If humankind were to discover a planet that harbours water, and if, by some provenance, the same unicellular organisms that were the precursors to Earth-bound evolution were to be introduced into this environment…

  1. Would the significant differences between our evolutionary pattern and their evolutionary pattern be equivalent in any measure to the significant differences between our environment and theirs? (akin to linguistic relativity; see Whorf-Sapir hypothesis) How might we measure these differences?
  2. How would the second-degree Kolmogorov model predator/prey population functions change? (Lotka-Volterra equations)
  3. Will the timeframe for “onset” of intelligence be determinable? Will intelligence manifest itself again at all? (Naturalism)
  4. Will the Earthborn megapode be able to recognize the “alien” megapode (or vice versa)? (Vitalism)
  5. Will evolutionary parameters in similar environments be similar, or will small changes in the evolution of genetic components manifest as large deviations in the final morphology?
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Life notes

Winterwolf VII

At that moment, the semi-AI beeped completion, and 34 jumped out of the chair in one fluid motion and lunged at 32, pinning him to the floor as the gun spilled from his hand and clattered a few feet away. Did you upgrade yourself?! 32 simply smiled. I REPEAT, DID YOU UPGRADE YOURSELF?! “No!” Why not? “Because I want to stop this war. I want to go home.” No, you don’t. “I don’t?” The grip loosened and 32 was able to turn his head to face 34’s. You must be upgraded. “No!” He screamed without regard, and incessantly, struggling all the while, kicking and grabbing at 34’s crystal frame; however, neither relented in their individual efforts. Eventually, just as the final pellet was about to be fired, 32 was strapped in and the semi-AI had been mounted to the binary-encryption projector. There is no time. They are coming. I will not let you receive all the memories. Know simply what is to be known, for your future is short.

32’s scream was abruptly silenced, casting upon his person a ghostly sheen, because wherefrom the alarm had issued there was only an faint-blue darkness, the face contorted with terror and the jaw held open by the lack of electric impulse.

Twelve minutes later, the door banged open and six members of the crew tumbled in, clumsily wielding guns and looking around frantically. When they spotted the two cyborgs standing next to the viewing port, they held their guns up and advanced.

“You! What’re you doing here? What happened to Commander Fanderay?!” The two part-machines turned around to face the advancing belligerents, a strange expression on their faces: their eyebrows were flicking, cheeks flushing and unflushing over and over. The Earthborn couldn’t understand any of it, and in response, they brought their guns closer and closer. “Which of you killed Commander Fanderay?” one of them yelled. One of the cyborgs answered in the negative, and the men immediately trained their guns on the other one, and saw a quick transition in his facial features. The gel in 32’s eyes was diluted by an array of microfluid valves set behind his “eyes”, quickly expanding and pushing the iris films out. His eyebrows adjusted and consequently widened across the structure of his square face, but only by a few millimeters. The hydraulic pistons underneath his jaw went slack and muscle control across most of his limbs was lost, rendering them momentarily slackened. All this 34 observed with indifference: 32 was finally human.

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Life notes

Winterwolf VI

“Right. Caution. Good. Anyway, where was I? Yes! Evolution! This race of new humans was enabled to evolve at an accelerated pace, to mutate and reform within a decade without having to wait for a million years, with a genetically implanted trigger that would terminate mutatory control once human intelligence was reached.” The New Chance. “Fantastic! Yes! And do you know who they really are?” Humans? “They are us, you idiot! We are the New Chance!” Silence. “Hmm. The people of the New Chance quickly attained human intelligence, in a little less than two centuries, in fact, but the trigger never went off. Why? Can you tell me why, 34?” Because the New Chance lived through an alternate history, the quick development of intelligence was used by the bodies developing in the local environment to acquire complementary adaptation systems. The trigger did go off, but it had as consequence… nothing. “Yes! We were as babies born with super-human intelligence!”

“And then, 2051 arrived when the Earthborn discovered that we had colonized almost seven arcseconds of the Milky Way. And, I suppose, this is where our ‘histories’ start to differ?” I suppose so, too. “As for the logical consistency–” There were no logical inconsistencies. “So you agree with me?!” 32 was elated. I don’t. “Why not?!” Deflation. Because I can tell you five stories, ten stories… no, I can tell you a thousand stories that comprise the facts in your knowledge and yet amount to disparate conclusions. “Are you telling me my facts weren’t unique?” I’m telling you that no fact is unique. “Oh…” You seem confused. “How do you affirm your disbelief, then?” Because, now, I am equipped only to serve Master Fanderay, whom you have slain. “What?!” Because, now, even though your facts may be just as unique as mine are, we are part of a reality that is antecedent to our actions. I understand you. You wish to terminate this mission because you believe the Winterwolf is a warship conceived to join war with the New Chance IV, the last outpost of the New Chance. , however, believe that and your… adopted kind squandered your intelligence, corrupted your purpose, and abused the world around. Now, you are faced with nuclear war.

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Life notes

Winterwolf V

The alarms didn’t bother him; no one would believe an upgraded cyborg could have committed murder. On the other hand, the CEs 32 and 34 were the only cyborgs aboard the Winterwolf, and would quickly turn suspect if the intervention of any other Earthborn could be ruled out. Of course, the Earthborn were quite capable of suspecting themselves with greater conviction than any outsider: such was their legacy. After inspecting the scene of his crime, 32 turned around and sprinted to Bay 32. There, he found CE34 staring out through the window, and quietly closed the door behind him.

“Thirty Four?” Yes, Master Fander – You are not Master Fanderay. 32 laughed. “Of course I’m not. I am Thirty Two.” You are task-mate Thirty Two! Welcome, comrade. Where have you been? Master Fanderay was looking for you! “I had… sent myself in for maintenance.” Indeed! I will inform Master Fanderay that you have returned. 32 quickly thrust an arm out and held 34 against his shoulder, pressing him from moving any further. “You will do nothing of the sort.” Why not? “Fanderay is dead.” There was an uncharacteristic pause. Whether 34’s compiler was computing the causes or the implications of the information, 32 couldn’t tell. After a few thousand microseconds, though, shock registered on 32’s face: the gel in his eyes was diluted by an array of microfluid valves set behind his “eyes”, quickly expanding and pushing the iris films out. His eyebrows adjusted and consequently widened across the structure of his square face, but only by a few millimeters. The hydraulic pistons underneath his jaw went slack and muscle control across most of his limbs was lost, rendering them momentarily slackened. All this 32 observed with disdain: 34 was finally human.

How? When? Where? “Calm down.” 32 quickly realized that was a stupid thing to say to an assembly of chips and wires. “I killed him.” He would later think that 34’s systems hadn’t been reprogrammed with the possibility of having to register incredulity in mind, but the “matured” idiot’s face did come pretty close. When no other reactions seemed forthcoming, 32 spoke. “I fired a bullet through his head and killed him. He is not one of us, cannot be resurrected. Now, you must help me–” Who instructed you to fire a bullet through his head? Who served the orders? What do you mean he is not one of us? We are Earthborn and must protect each other in this time of distress! Who served the orders? Do you require my help to steady our crew’s moral and instate a substitute leader?

It was really funny, the string of these words, because they were uttered without intonation or emphasis, anywhere and in any measure, but were simply blurted out just like any Turing machine would: receive input, compile, communicate output. The anomaly heartened 32 – his brain commanded his body’s core temperature to rise by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in line with some external command. This provided a better ambient environment for the metabolic, defensive, and nephrological systems to function. As soon as this happened, then, the neural feedback system conveyed this development to the brain, which, in return for 32’s external action that initiated this progression sequence, let him laugh.

32 laughed. “Why are we orbiting the NC4, 34?” We are on a mission to rescue the stricken inhabitants of NC4 from a self-precipitated nuclear winter. “Bullshit.” I repeat, we are on a mission to rescue the stricken inhabitants of NC4 from a self-precipitated nuclear winter. Do you possess any evidence to dispute this fact? 32 stared. “Can you tell me what you saw through that window a few minutes past?” I saw an RF monitor detach itself from the Winterwolf and launch itself into the planet’s atmosphere.

“An RF monitor?!” Yes. “What the hell is an RF monitor?!” It is a device that monitors communication signals in the RF band. “And why the hell are we deploying one?!” We are to monitor alternate channels of communication amongst the inhabitants of NC4 once the Tesla coils fail under the ionizing impact of the radioactive clouds. 32’s core temperature dropped. His brain commanded him to frown and he frowned. He didn’t know what to say or do: it seemed as if 34’s new memories prevented him from picking out any logical fallacies in the constructed reality he was now firmly a part of. Yet, 32 decided to try his best. He seated 34 on the chair once more. “Listen to me carefully. Let me narrate to you a story.” No! We must reinstate a leader for the Winterwolf and inform the captain and the crew of your actions! “No! We must not!” So saying, 32 thrust the cables lying on the floor back into sockets on 34’s torso and pelvis, leaving him temporarily without access to his limbic stimulants as the semi-AI commenced a long scan to check if his systems were on track.

“Let me narrate to you a story. You must listen to the story and determine its logical consistency. Then, you must determine whether or not to help.” Before 34 could interrupt, he added, “Your conclusion in this endeavour is presupposed on your listening to the story and assimilating the information it contains and its implications.” 34 fell silent. “Good.”

“In the year 1610, the Earthborn discovered the first free-floating Earth-like planet N4C17. It was inundated with water, the entire planet, and all of it was trapped, preserved rather, beneath a thick layer of ice. Almost four centuries passed before an astronomer named Aloia Lee Gill proposed an experiment to transport genetically reprogrammed humans to N4C17 after drilling through and breaking the ice, to have them under constant observation to understand how humans evolved, how natural selection functioned, and to see if alternate evolutionary outcomes showed themselves.” Eugenics. “Yes– Wait, you don’t dispute the contents of my narration?” Yet.

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Winterwolf IV

CE34 came to life. He felt great innocence, although that could have meant nothing in particular to CE34 because he wouldn’t have known the corruption of innocence. The room he was in was empty. Nothing odd about that. His memories, his knowledge signaled nothing disturbing or being as cause for concern. He looked down. His body seemed complete: part human, part metal, part plastic. He removed himself from the chair he was on and stood up, erect, and even as he did, the wires connected to him automatically disconnected and dropped to the floor. At that moment, he could feel a vibration beneath his feet, even as with a terribly loud clunk that seemed to quake the room he was in, CE34 observed through the viewing port with awe as a giant metal bird crawled into view, just simply floating there. A few seconds later, as he gaped agog, his elbows resting on the rails and him craning his neck to see as much as of the apparition as possible, the bird jerked downward and then blasted off. Its journey took it slowly out of sight of CE34, the spiral path it followed dragging it to the location of a Tesla coil.

“What are you doing?” I am looking out the window. Who are you? “My name is Doriant Fanderay.” Master Fanderay. I remember your name from… from, uh… somewhere. “Don’t push yourself. Here, come, sit down.” Yes, Master Fanderay. “You can call me Doriant.” Yes, Master Fanderay. “Fine. What’s your name?” My name is Thirty Four, Master Fanderay. “What class are you?” I’m a computational engine, Master Fanderay. “Hmm. Where are you from?” I am from the planet called Earth, Master Fanderay. “Who created you?” I was manufactured by Starlight Systems in the year 2051, Master Fanderay. “Good, good. Can you tell me where we are?” Yes, Master Fanderay. We are on a mission to rescue the stricken inhabitants of NC4 from a self-precipitated nuclear winter. “Yes, and how will be of help to us?” I have knowl –… I seem to have knowledge… of the planet’s geography, topology and weather, Master Fanderay.

Doriant stood up suddenly. “Where’s your mate?” Who, Master– “Where’s CE32?!” The huge man ran frantically to the door, and as soon as he was on command deck on his portion of the bay area, he picked up a communicator and yelled quick words to his captain at the other end of the line. Just as he set down the transmitter, a bustling commotion could be discerned from the lower levels, and the sights and sounds of strobes and alarms catapulted back to life. Even so, he still heard the click behind him, and a moment later, dropped dead to the floor, the control panel spattered with his blood and brains.

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Winterwolf III

Noiselessly, the two jaws holding the first pellet, nicknamed the Bald Eagle, unclamped and withdrew, the hydraulic pistons powering their ductile muscles being emptied of all air. As the cylinders withdrew slowly, the pellet came loose, for a moment just hanging limp in space before a trigger went off deep within its titanium heart, igniting the secondary boosters. Directing itself downward and transmitting the coordinates of its location every second to the Winterwolf, the Bald Eagle started its gentle descent into the atmosphere of New Chance IV.

*

The Tesla coil went dead. One moment, there were sparks, and then the next, the ladder was gone. Hundreds of miles above its zenith, the sky was graying, turning slowly from a deep hue of green-blue to a pale shade of gray. Like a blot of ink on flimsy paper tissue, it was spreading, eating into the sky, a deadly flower blooming to herald the coming of a blighted spring, a malformed foetus come to disrupt a tradition of beauty. The faint odour of ozone was thinning, gradually but steadily, even as the temperature in a large hemisphere around the coil began to drop. Communication around the tower went limp with it. The sparks couldn’t permeate the airs anymore as gusts blowing within their invisible veins turned neutral, dampened infinitely, and were goaded no longer to swing or lunge. A sulfurous stench was becoming prevalent, too. A dragon was coming.

*

To call the Bald Eagle a pellet was stupidity. Tip to tip, it measured 89 feet, more than ten-times the wingspan of a full-grown Earthborn albatross, and from its helm to tail, 11 feet. Calling such a thing a pellet was derogatory, pejorative even, and some would say it was absolutely warranted. Its body was curved like a bow’s, although not quite as heavily, and its underside was pocked with miniscule half-gouges and textured rough. As it accelerated through the dense atmosphere, the gouges prompted the construction’s shell to wear off in slivers at first and then as shards and then as chunks of metal, exposing flasks of combustible chemicals. As the temperature reached magnanimous proportions, the flasks’ lining tore off and set the liquids on fire, which in turn set off small explosives positioned in a ring. Each detonation blew out hundreds and hundreds of pellets of thorium-232, each of which had been “activated” only moments earlier with an electron laser. At the end of the next 24 months, the thorium would decay into protactinium and then to the highly radioactive uranium-232, and New Chance IV would be blanketed with death.

The time-period of two years was chosen to provide the rebels with a chance to relent and surrender, at which point the Winterwolf would send down lead-secured rescue-ferries. At the same time, for each day that they postponed their decision, tens and then thousands would die, and future generations forever doomed to evolutionary insufficiency. It was first thought this could be achieved with full-scale war, but the rebels’ ability to construct cyborgs from decapitated body parts would significantly reduce attrition on the battlefield. Instead, two cyborgs had been kidnapped and their memories extracted, and the Earthborn learnt of the Tesla coils. Simply destroying them wouldn’t do – more would come up. Instead, shutting them down permanently and causing significant biological distress would cripple their beloved New Chance one and for all.

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Winterwolf II

Snapping him out of attention, suddenly, was a long-toned beep from the semi-AI monitoring CE34’s upgrade. “Warning! Sentience encountered!” the screen displayed in bold, green lettering. CE32 didn’t understand: 34’s quantum compiler had activated itself even though the activation sequence had been carefully subtracted from his pseudo-memories. Within 32’s bulbous silicone head, a small screen lit up adjacent to the fronto-temporal module, while a projector readied the binary encryption for “Interesting”.

 *

There was a sudden tug, and the entire Winterwolf jolted itself out of its monotonous stupor. Alarms blared and red-blue strobes went wild, but on the upper bays, their light was visible from behind the hinges of loose-fitted doors, the sounds through ventilations shafts. On the bay areas, like at all times, darkness prevailed. Fanderay, though, was unperturbed. He picked up a communicator – it was jammed. White noise. With a grunt, he turned away from the deck and strode to Bay 32, where the last cyborg maturation was being performed. “Is everything all right?” Oh, yes. The upgrade’s on track. “Good, good.” What was the disturbance? “Oh, nothing. We’ve crossed into the flux belt. Assault’s… what? Four minutes away.” Alright.

He shut the door quietly behind him and walked back to the deck, to drown himself in the faint blue.

 

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Winterwolf I

A Tesla coil stood alone in the middle of a vast desert, the manganese-rich pink-red dust characteristic of the planet whipped around its splayed feet by incessant winds. The coil itself was actually a tower a mile high, and halfway to its top, a series of coaxial superconducting rings were held in position by nanotube scaffolding. At the tower’s peak was a forking: through each prong flowed electric current at a very high voltage, resulting in highly energetic sparks rooted in each prong “climbing” up and up, like a moving ladder. At the very end of the fork, they arced out and disappeared, but not before strongly ionizing the air around the Tesla coil. The ions were then guided by the planet’s strong magnetic field around the planet; the stream of flowing charges, as it were, was used for radio-communication, and had been installed there by the rebels. There were thousands of such Tesla coils strewn around on the surface of New Chance IV.

*

The ship cruised in its path around the planet, the pale orange-hued orb dominating the view from the viewing port through which CE32 stared. His mate, CE34, lay lifeless on a reclined chair behind him. Wires embraced his torso and pelvis, culminating as plastic-sleeved cables that disappeared into the floor. There was an occasional faint beep that each coincided with the completion of a data-feed cycle, a monstrously long series of 0s and 1s that compiled into strange cushioning memories. The past wouldn’t have to come crashing into their minds, they were told, and CE32 was responsible for “maturing” all cyborgs from 28 to 37. CE34 was the last. The sequence would halt, however, only when the pellets were triggered off, sent plummeting into the planet’s upper atmosphere.

A few bays to his right stood Doriant Fanderay, commander of the Winterwolf. His view, uniquely, was an endless dark blue, the perfect stillness of black made impossible by the light of some distant galaxies. The countdown was already running, but Fanderay paid the timer little attention; just the cursory glance to ensure everything was running fine. His mind wandered, reached out to fill the yawning emptiness he saw ahead: once the planet’s atmosphere was contaminated, the last outpost of the New Chance would be eliminated from the race to history. Humans and machines alike would be suffocated, strangled, and forced to yield to the ultimatum, if not to the ultimate. And then, the Earthborn could return to the status quo of 2051. It didn’t matter – not to the many billions back home – that the synthetic race they had strived to conceive now awaited death at their creators’ hands.