Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Science Future: Aggrandize Aptitude


This time on Science Future: Various stepping-stones to human augmentation.

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction have upon each other.

Aggrandize Aptitude

Last month we were treated to a story about human performance. EP318: The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey was about a human with incredible abilities surrounded by transhumans with mediocre abilities. It took place in a world where humans regularly modified their bodies beyond what we consider to be the human normal but focused on one human who hadn’t and might not and yet still had the chance to exceed all of them.

Yet the story was cheating in asense for the protagonist already had a capability that far exceeded that of the standard human template. So much so that he was under constant surveillance for the possibility of actual augmentation. The stealthiest augmentation for one competing in sports today is drugs. In the future, the definition of drugs might be expanded beyond simple chemical concoctions. Rohit Talwar, the founder of Fast Future Research, gave a talk at Intelligence Squared’s If conference about the possibility of digital drugs via direct manipulation of brain chemistry using transcranial magnetic stimulation. One could only assume this kind of manipulation would be extremely hard to detect. No chemical traces and nothing invasive or even ingested. Except that in The Prize our protagonist had his doppelgänger, which was an atomic scale simulation of himself. This copy could easily have been used as both a training and surveillance device.

It is hard to believe the precision needed to copy someone down to the atomic level could be easily done via external sensors and implants would obviously not be allowed for competitive reasons but they likely used a more advanced version of this system. Researchers led by the California Institute of Technology have created a series of microchips that can quickly and inexpensively assess immune function of a human from one single cell harvested from their body. With a device like that, occasionally sampling the body for a drop of blood and building a clone that could forecast the physical changes one might undergo after eating cake seems almost feasible.

The Gift focused more on the possibility of human enhancement. Changing a the body to give one abilities that they could never hope to achieve within a human genetic code. Two of the enhancements referenced were increasing intelligence and empathy. The brain is a complicated organ in charge of many things that we don’t understand and the idea of enhancing seems far off. Repairing it, less so. There is promising research in the field of cybernetics that helps repair brain damage. Created by Theodore Berger and his team at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and researchers at Wake Forest University, a neural prosthesis is able to restore  a rat’s ability to form long-term memories after they had been pharmacologically blocked. This is the first step to augmenting something like intelligence and empathy.

But what if dramatic enhancement was not really what someone like Michito was looking for? Well a discovery by Columbia University Medical Center researchers may lead to a better understanding how to fundamentally change the human body in subtle ways. They have shown that not all traits passed on to offspring without the use of DNA but instead naturally occurring viral agents called viRNAs which modify the creature’s RNA. RNA acts like DNA’s messenger in the body, relaying the code. So if the RNA is modified, then the DNA of the being is effectively bypassed. This kinda of science could be harnessed to create a slightly faster person or creating large-scale immunity against difference diseases.

Obviously research into human augmentation continues, be through a biological, technological, or chemical means. Stories like The Prize Beyond Gold will continue to give us reasons to achieve new and different levels of augmentation. Afterall, most of us will never be Michito but we could possibly be better than him.

There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do – the result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier. – Benjamin Franklin

Book Review: Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin


Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le GuinChanging Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin is a book based on a little pun — the idea that the relentless hostility of airports to the human mind can, at times, drive a person out of our plane of reality and into another. While waiting to change planes, then, one might find one’s self actually changing planes. Since only a few minutes pass in one’s home plane while one is traveling through another, there’s no reason not to spend one’s layover napping on a tropical beach or hiking through some other world’s mountains.

Changing Planes doesn’t have a plot as such. It’s a series of vignettes of the different planes one might choose to visit. Each one is enthrallingly lyrical (I was almost sucked back into the book in the process of writing this review) and drawn with the eye for telling detail that has always made Le Guin’s writing stand out from the rest of genre fiction. Each chapter addresses a different world. The shift in tone ought to be jarring, but isn’t — though she focuses on a different aspect of humanity in each world the protagonist (such as there is) visits or hears about, the book still stands as a cohesive whole.

When I picked up Changing Planes, I didn’t realize that I had already read two of the chapters when they were published as short stories in Lightspeed Magazine. One of them — “The Silence of the Asonu” — stayed on my iPod for a while so that I could re-listen to it. I love the feelings it evokes. It is not a happy story — few of these chapters are happy stories. The deep mystery of the silence of the Asonu combined with the ridiculous mysticism that tourists have projected onto them call to mind a pattern that I am familiar with from our world. That the story takes such a dark turn at the end fits that pattern.

Science fiction is at its best when it reflects aspects of our shared humanity back at us. The worlds in Changing Planes are similar to ours, with a few telling changes. I believe that anyone who reads these stories will come away with a clear idea of what Le Guin was criticizing about our society — but I don’t think any two people will necessarily agree about what that was. Take the other story that is available in Lightspeed: “The Island of the Immortals.” Is it a commentary on the quest for eternal life? Or a statement about how a society chooses to treat its elderly? Both? Or something else? Even stories that don’t feel particularly nuanced proved to be more complicated than they appeared once I tried to pick them apart. For example, I remembered the chapter called “Great Joy” as a straightforward commentary on corporate greed. Upon rereading, it was clearly a scathing criticism of the commodification of holidays.

Changing Planes will frustrate some readers. It does lack a plot and a clearly-drawn protagonist. Its style reminded me most strongly of Always Coming Home — which happens to be my favorite work by Le Guin. I think it will speak to people who love science fiction for its own sake, and not just for the superficial trappings of rockets and starships. Le Guin is once again trying to make her readers look at the world in a new way. Whether or not Changing Planes succeeds in doing that will depend on the reader. Fans of Le Guin should give Changing Planes a look. Readers who are on the fence should read or listen to the two chapters published in Lightspeed before making up their minds.

Science Future


“Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.”J. G. Ballard

Science is not something the we think about day-to-day. As children we’re educated in the ways of biology, chemistry, and physics. We visited museums, planetariums, and wildlife parks. We calculated mass and velocity, dissected animals, and stared at the periodic table of elements with vague comprehension.

Then it all stopped.
Plasma lamp at Kobe Science Museum CCL 2.5 (http://opencage.info)
But there are many different ways to be exposed to science. One could go re-visit a museum, subscribe to a science news feed, pick up a nature magazine, or go grab a quick doctorate. There is, however, one avenue that is often overlooked even by its regular consumers. You could read, or in our case listen to, science fiction.

Science is the systematic study of the world around us. Science fiction is the exploration of science through the use of story and imagination. Every time we hear a new and amazing tale, we’re being exposed not to present day science but the science of the future. Science fiction takes what we know today and projects it forward, creating a hypothesis surrounded by an entertaining tale. These hypotheses have come to influence not only our popular entertainment but the minds of generations. People across the world now carry hand-held communication devices, once called communicators on a popular science fiction television show and now called cell phones. In Japan robots of all shapes and sizes are being fashioned after the popular stories of giant robots in their science fiction. All over we can see the small influences of science fiction in the science and technologies of our society.

So if we can see the influence of science fiction upon our world now, what science fiction has yet to be written that will inspire our future?

To know that we need to look to what is between science and science fiction. We need to look at Science Future. Science Future is a series of articles dedicated to bridging the gap between science and science fiction by looking at the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and linking it back to science fiction. Each article will present scientific discoveries and discuss science fiction themes related to it  and the possible impacts it could have upon the future of the genre. Together, we will explore science fiction from its roots.

“Science fiction writers foresee the inevitable, and although problems and catastrophes may be inevitable, solutions are not.”Isaac Asimov