Posts Tagged science fiction writers
I’m currently working on a story of about 23,000 words (that makes it a “novella” or “novelette,” depending on your definition) that has to do with humans from Earth who come in contact with beings on another planet who communicate almost entirely by mental telepathy. Their brains are so big—maybe 50 to 100 times the size and mass of an adult human brain—that they have developed the physical power to send signals to others of their species in the their immediate vicinity. They’re all on the same wavelength, so to speak. These signals are received as communication. Literally. The signals are received as a string of words, in the same way we communicate with a string of words using the vibrations of our vocal cords to send vibrations through a gaseous medium, air. These creatures have no specific organs of communication as we do at all.
All of that got me to thinking. How does one species communicate by mental telepathy to another species if they speak different languages? Is mental telepathy even possible in that situation? A string of words just won’t work because the recipient still won’t understand the meaning of the transmission. But in my story, one of the two main characters is capable of understanding the foreign species. In fact, that’s the whole basis of the story, that humans may be able to contact beings on another world. But, the devil is in the details: how would that work? Science fiction writers might want to take note of this; it could be useful in stories about first contact(s).
I did a little looking around at the concept of “mental telepathy,” and it’s usually defined as the ability to communicate through means not involving talking, reading, or any other standard method. It’s basically a sort of transmission from one mind to another. But that’s as far as it goes. I haven’t found anyone who has actually wondered how it takes place. What is it that’s being transmitted? If someone says she/he can read another person’s mind, what is it they are reading? In my humble, and perhaps somewhat flippant opinion, here’s three possible ways that mental telepathy might actually take place, in order of simplest to most complex.
1. By concepts only. In this method, only broad concepts are actually being transmitted from one to another. The concept of rocket propulsion, for example. Or weightlessness in the vacuum of outer space. The necessity of an atmosphere for life to exist. No actual images are sent, and no details at all.
2. Mind visualization. In this method, actual images are sent. That could transmit a vast amount of information. The image of an Apollo space capsule, inside and out, for example, would tell the recipient—assuming he’s sophisticated in space travel—just what it was like for our species to travel to another heavenly body in the early stages of our space program. The information transmitted would be only in the image itself. Any other information, say, what it was like to live in one of those cramped capsules, would have to be inferred by the recipient. But an Apollo space capsule in one language would be an Apollo space capsule in any other.
3. Transmission of a string of words. This I expect would be the most complicated form of transmission, but would convey the greatest amount of information. That is, of course, what words are designed to do. An image of the Apollo space capsule might give a visitor from another planet a lot of information, but many details he/she (it?) might not understand. Words, description, these would be the most detailed. But the recipient of the mental transmission of a string of words would have to understand the language of the sender to be able to interpret it. and so this method, while highly accurate, might be seriously limited.
I’m not an expert in ESP or mental telepathy, certainly, and I’ve never heard if any of these methods are currently being tested. I’m not sure if mental telepathy really exists outside of science fiction. It’s a controversial subject in real life, but in science fiction the sky’s the limit. If you need mental telepathy in your writing, have a go at one of these types. They seem, to me, to be the most likely modes of transmission of information.
Several times I’ve written in this blog about the possibility of life on other planets in the Milky Way Galaxy. (Or other galaxies for that matter.) It’s almost certain that life exists somewhere else, even though we here on Earth have never been able to find any evidence for it. The recent findings that water existed on Mars in the distant past offers a good possibility that life will be found amidst the rocks and dirt of the red planet, although if life ever existed on Mars, it’s probably gone by now. Life—whatever the type or style—is almost certainly out there. Somewhere.
But science fiction writers (and I include myself here even though I haven’t published anything yet) seem to be focused on one type of life: that of the humanoid, logical, reasonable, communicative type. As an example, I saw an episode of the old TV series “The Outer Limits” a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the manner in which the writers of that particular episode had endowed the creature that had invaded Earth with all sorts of human traits. The invader was “trapped” here on Earth, and Earthlings had to help “him” escape. A fairly typical sci-fi story. The invader was depicted on the screen by saw-tooth-like lightning bolts that made up his body. He was a two-dimensional creature, able to slip through 3-D walls since he had no thickness. Again, a fairly typical concoction for science fiction. And when the Earthlings gave him the object that he needed to return to his own planet, the invader told them how he very much appreciated what they did. In other words, the invader acted exactly as you would expect a reasonable human to act in the same situation.
A lot of sci-fi is written that way. I have to admit that the characters in my novels are “humanoid” and act as humans in most respects. (I do that to let us get a good look at ourselves.) We human writers put human traits into many of the aliens we meet in out fictional travels around the universe. But it seems to me that that situation is almost certainly not what we are going to see when we really do meet the first aliens out there. Life on other planets is almost certainly going to be weirder and more unusual than we can imagine. None of them are going to “thank” us if we do something for them. Giving thanks is a human trait. Is it reasonable to expect that life on another planet—regardless of what it looks like—is going to operate by the social rules of Earth? If we find life on Mars, or at least the remnants of Martian life, it probably won’t be what we think it will be. We may go looking for Martian bacteria. But who’s to say that life on Mars ever had bacterial forms? There was an episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation where the alien life the characters encountered was a thin film of salty water deep within the bowels of an otherwise uninhabited planet. It was able to communicate with the Enterprise’s crew through the ship’s computer. That was good, and a very good example of what I’m talking about. Different. Wild and weird.
We need to open our minds to other things. Things we never thought of before.
As I mentioned in a previous post this past August, I attended Bubonicon 46 here in Albuquerque, and had a great time. One interesting topic that came up in one of the panel discussions was the fact that while science fiction writers have been known to predict the development of future objects and appliances, by and large, sci-fi writers are lousy at making future predictions of real objects. Science and technology always seem to come up with items that no one foresaw or foretold. Like CAT scans and MRI technology. So why can’t science-fiction writers figure out the next big thing? We work in the future. We should be able to decipher the code to the future, but we just haven’t been able to. Why not?
I suspect several good reasons exist as to why it’s impossible to predict the future (by scientists themselves or sci-fi writers), and I can’t go into all of them, so for what it’s worth, here’s my explanation: too many scientists.
Every breakthrough in science has to start in somebody’s laboratory (or basement or garage). Someone makes an observation, small at the time, and publishes it in a scientific journal. Then that scientist–and others as well–may work on it and develop it until it becomes a big damn deal. At that point it becomes a real breakthrough and is hailed as the next big thing. That can take a long time, though, ten or twenty years or more. Yet, it had to start with a single, simple observation or concept. Thomas Edison is reputed to have said that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.
There are millions of scientists in the world today, most of whom publish papers that wind up in scientific journals. That’s a lot of papers–millions every year. No scientist has the time to read all those papers. Not even close. As a virologist, I read papers only in my limited field within the overall broad field of virology. And virology is only one part of the larger field of microbiology, which is one part of the still larger field of biology. In one year, I probably read less than one percent of all papers published in virology. A tiny percentage.
In contrast, how many science-fiction writers–currently publishing–are there in the world today? Maybe a few thousand? No science fiction writer has the time to scan all those scientific papers to glean the next big thing. Somewhere, buried in all that science, could be a breakthrough that will lead us to better times for all. (Or most.) But where is it? And not only would that sci-fi writer have to find it, he/she would have to have the intelligence, experience, expertise and training to be able to recognize it in the first place.
Science-fiction writers, like everybody else, see mainly the big things that have come up recently, for example, solid-state electronics; the latest iPhone; the images from the Hubble telescope; the data from the Large Hadron Collider; the emergence of diseases such as AIDS, MERS, and ebola; data from neutrino experiments; the development of small personal drones; and so on. Extrapolating from these and others is possible, but leads only to an extrapolated future, not a future populated with the “next great thing.” A good example of that is the talking computer HAL in “2001 A Space Odyssey,” or the computers onboard the Starship Enterprise. The next big thing is somewhere within that mess of scientific journals, and someone’s going to have to find it. It’s extremely unlikely. There’s just too much to wade through.
Read any good scientific journals lately?