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Jun 11, 2013

Of Mechs And Men


In yesterday’s post, I discussed the pre-existent ideas about the future that a sf author should be aware of when world-building. In fact, if you think of these as a series of scales or levers, just answering these questions can toss up an interesting setting for a SF story.

1. Will artificial intelligence ever expand, change, or overtake human intelligence?
2. How might we travel Faster Than Light?
3. What would be the biggest challenges to establish colonies on other worlds?
4. Has life evolved more than once? Do aliens exist? If so, how might they interact with humanity?
5. How will genetic engineering change what it means to be human?
6. What social, political, and military changes will emerge in response to new technology and new discoveries?

I’m going to talk about the decisions I made while building the STRAT universe, and explain them.

1. Artificial Intelligence

STRAT is a story about artificial intelligence… but not hypersmart robots. In fact, even though “mechs” are an important part of the story, they are not Transformer type mechs, with human intelligence and a taste for pop music. Nor are they Kill All Humans obsessed Terminators. They are merely tools that extend the fighting leverage of human soldiers
This isn't to say that mechs never turn on humans. During training for the Galactic War, the hero and his platoon are taught two different ways to program strats into their mechs, one using "chained tactics" and the other, "freestyle."
Chained tactics meant you stacked a decision tree with a long list of tactics, and the mechs followed that order of operations. You could program complex stratagems that way, creating traps and bluffs and long-term deployments. The downside was that if any of your planning assumptions were wrong, your whole decision tree would be hacked down at the root, and the long chain of tactics would be worthless, leaving the mechs helpless to readjust without direct oversight.

Freestyle tactics meant that you gave your mechs a multitude of short decision trees, and let them shuffle through the tactics randomly as they traversed the combat terrain, learning on their own which worked best. The drawback was that freestyle mechs took a while to learn what worked, so they could be sucker-punched by the other side. Worse yet, sometimes they learned wrong.

Mechs operating freestyle could screw you up royally, if they fell into a bad rut, which sometimes happened for no obvious reason. Sometimes they even turned on each other, or worse, on you. When you had your own mechs bite you in the arse like that once or twice, you tended to shy away from freestyle. But despite a few spectacular screw-ups, freestyle mechs usually beat chained mechs in most dust-ups. The longer and more chaotic the engagement, the more likely freestyle mechs were to triumph over mechs chained to a pre-ordained decision tree.

Even freestyle mechs are tools, however, not people made of metal.

The real artificial intelligence tech in the story is “meme” tech, the ability to store and transfer memory from one mind to another. In addition to meme tech, there are also two other forms of neural adjustment technology: emotivation, which is imprinting an emotional state or attitude (i.e. loyalty to a lord, or love for a husband); and mindwiping, which is turning a human into an obedient doll... programmable much like a mech.
Is meme tech all-powerful and irresistible? Is human nature like plastic in the hands of the architects of direct neural propaganda? Or does reality bite back? That's the question.

2. Faster Than Light Space Travel

In the STRAT universe, I hypothesize two types of FTL transportation. One is the old stand-by in SF, the wormhole, or “jump gate,” suitable for large ships at the edge of star systems. The other, which is called a “synapse,”  works on the principle of quantum entanglement. Neither idea is new to SF. What was important to me was to choose a method that could conceivably evolve and improve over the course of time.


3. Colonies in space

Since FTL travel is possible, colonies on other planets are also possible. (In this particular series, I don't explore anything more exotic than other planets--that's for another book...) Here I hypothesized that in seeking another world, the single most important “Earth-like” quality humans would seek would be the right gravity. They have no easy way to create that in the STRAT universe, whereas if they can create spaceships, I figure, they can also create self-sufficient archologies that have air, water, plants and living space for humans.

Because of this, planets which might seem inimical to human life, like Neraka, with its atmosphere, glaciers, volcanoes, and seas all oozing sulfur dioxide, are colonized. Neraka is not easy to terraform, but it has the right gravity, so that makes it “habitable.” Ironically, this means that once established there, the denizens are condemned to mad scramble for breathable gases. They mine oxygen and carbon from the rocks, to keep themselves and their crops alive. Mass asphyxia, not famine, has been the great killer in times of want.

4. Aliens

Aliens, and their relationship to humanity, are extremely important in STRAT, but not in the usual way. That’s because the aliens do not (usually) interact with humans, so their influence is felt only at arm’s length. Who the aliens really are and what they want, and whether they work for humanity’s harm or benefit, are huge questions in the background of the novel. STRAT is in many ways a straightforward military adventure novel, but this was an element that I wanted to remain ambiguous and uncertain, as real life is ambiguous and uncertain.

5. Genetic Changes to Humanity

It’s possible that humans on other planets would change their own genetic make-up rather than their environment. After all, it’s easier to manipulate DNA—we can do that already to some extent—than change the weather…at least in the direction we want! However, I treat this conservatively in STRAT. Humans prefer to genetically engineer microscopic symbionts to help them adapt to poisonous environments. They also use genetic engineering on animals, such as the mouse-cows that provide miner families with fresh milk, or the unicorns that adorn the gardens of the nobility.

The main ways that human groups differ from each other are the accidental and incidental results of the separation of different lineages over long periods of time. Racial differences, in other words. These are not important, except as a cause social friction: “Sagittarians and Cygnians,” the hero observes, “differ from one another in subtle ways, the cast of the eye, the tint of the skin, trivial divergences that fools make much of.” (He also finds that decapitation does marvels for discouraging attacks by racist hooligans.)

6. Social Changes to Humanity

Social change is really at the heart of STRAT. Many SF stories take a snapshot of the future…the technology is already different, and people have adjusted to this new way of life. Often, if the author is good, the characters take their amazing new abilities and circumstances for granted. However, I wanted to show a society experiencing an accelerated rate of change. There are a few authors who have done this well, and they happen to be among my favorites: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, of course; Haldeman’s Forever War; Olaf Stapledon’s First and Last Men and Star Maker; Stephan Baxter’s Evolution....

Where else would change be most rapid, most obvious, and most lethal, than in war? That’s why I wanted STRAT to be specifically military SF. What if a millennia worth of change in military technology all occurred within the lifetime of one man? How would he deal with that? It’s said that generals are always prepared to fight the last war. In the STRAT universe, that’s a particular danger, because both military and social technologies are changing so rapidly.

It’s hard enough to show change. It’s even harder show change accelerating. It’s hardest of all to show accelerating future change—by definition unknown! So, I admit, I cheated a bit, and looked to the past for inspiration. This is a time-honored tradition in military SF too, by the way. The Honor Harrington series is basically Horatio Hornblower in space, StarshipTroopers references WWII, the Forever War can be read as an allegory of Vietnam, and after 911 a whole new slew of military SF featuring sneak attacks and terrorist suicide bombers emerged. In Star Wars, they fight with glowy swords. Really? Swords? Really?

Also, have you ever noticed how common monarchies and empires are in SF? What’s up with that?

Well, I can’t criticize. The society on Neraka at the beginning of STRAT is also feudal. While the hero belongs to an equalitarian, democratic clan-based society, who live as outcastes out in the “Wayout,” or wilderness, the majority of people are ruled by lords and their armsmen, who are equivalent to knights or samurai. My hero aquires a knightly weapon called a vajram, which has several modes, including a sword-form. (Though it’s really more like a slender, super-powered chainsaw.)

This is not because I actually think that the future will recapitulate the past.
The real reason I did this was so that I could show society moving from a feudal base to a more complex form—and show war grow larger in scope at the same time. However, within the story universe, the rise of “space feudalism” is explained in an faux academic Aside by “Demographic Density Theory,” or the hypothesis that when the majority of people are dispersed but tied to the land (by agriculture in Earth’s past, by mining for gases during the age of galactic exploration), they become vulnerable to bandits, and must turn to a strong central military caste for protection.

The hero too must give up the freedom he believes in to join this feudal system and fight for his abducted wife. That, however, is only the beginning of the story. For the feudal system is soon itself overturned by new technological and social developments. The question at the heart of the novel is whether freedom is sustainable, and what is required to defend it.

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