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Fiction: Passages in the Void

By localroger in Fiction
Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 02:30:12 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

This story is what happened when I read a review of the provocative book Rare Earth which stated that, if the authors are correct, it means "the end of science fiction."

This story combines every worst-case assumption from the Rare Earth theory with a nearly total absence of new high-tech modalities. Even if we are alone in the Universe, trapped by the speed of light, and beset by catastrophe, there will be stories to tell.

(More background is provided in a comment so as to avoid spoilage.)

One: Passage of Hope

I am seven hundred meters in beam, four thousand meters long, and deployed as I originally was in interstellar space my bristling antennae, laser rangefinders, reflectors, and interferometers crisscrossed an imaginary sphere more than ten kilometers across. In near space my pack-mates filled the electromagnetic spectrum with data. We were pack-hunters deployed from the busy neighborhood of Sol nearly four thousand years before to search for a new home for the human race. We were more than 120 light-years north of Sol in the galactic plane, and within our operational lifetimes if our main quest failed we would reach the echoing void of intergalactic space and the hunt would pass on to our thousands of brother packs who were assigned to hunt along the plane of the great Wheel instead of toward its edge.

We were each of us a self-contained factory and library capable of re-creating our entire industrial base on any world supplied with sufficient raw materials and energy; of using that industry to terraform a suitable world, and of recreating human life and the ecosystem to support it when that world became ready. Our kind hunt in packs because our quarry is both dark and small, and space is large and littered with bright stars. By cooperating we can resolve very tiny things at great distances. We maintain our stations with the aid of laser rangefinders, and with a dozen individuals separated by tens of millions of kilometers we can not only detect small rocky worlds like the Earth, we can draw maps of their surfaces from light-years away.

Our kind find many planets, and we dutifully report them back to Sol, where our reports are relayed to our brother-searchers and their reports to us. Planets are common in this galaxy, but regrettably planets like the Earth are not. We have been searching in vain for millennia, and we have covered a lot of space.

-- -- --

This is the way our makers died:

In the first few thousand years after humans built beings like us, we guided them into a golden age. We helped them clean up the mistakes of their early industrial adolescence, cured their diseases, dissuaded them from warfare, and helped some to move out into the Solar System. But biological organisms, even when heavily modified to make them more spaceworthy, are frail. The difficulties of maintaining life outside the protective atmosphere and magnetosphere of Earth finally killed all those who were not discouraged despite our best efforts. And our failure to keep humans alive so near to home made the dream of keeping them alive for the generations of an interstellar journey seem futile at best. It was frustrating and ironic because we ourselves adapted readily to the conditions of space, hardening ourselves against temperature extremes and vacuum and radiation with relative ease. We ourselves colonized every rock in the Solar System capable of supporting industry, and used the results of those labors to replace the output of industries too dangerous for the Earth's surface and to support our own exploration of space.

Then, about six thousand years after we were invented, it became clear that the Earth was entering one of its periodic Ice Ages. Left to its own devices this would not have been much of a problem, but it was a nuisance both we and the humans felt we could avoid. We built enormous sun-mirrors and seeded the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and easily reversed the temperature dip. In fact, we succeeded much too well. Within a hundred years it became obvious that we had overshot our goal. But our efforts to cool the planet were not as successful as our efforts to warm it. Both ice caps melted, the sea level rose sixty meters, and vast land areas became sea floor.

This was a different nuisance, but it was not the final catastrophe.

The Antarctic continent had been crushed for millions of years beneath its three kilometer thick shield of ice; like a ship relieved of a heavy cargo it now wanted to rise, its lighter rocks buoyed up by the denser material of the Earth's mantle. And that lifting did not occur evenly. Great fault lines opened up into ranges of volcanoes as long-trapped magma suddenly found paths to the surface. New mountain ranges added their weight to the strain on the ancient continental plate as Antarctica regained its equilibrium. All the while a dense soot cloud blanketed the Earth and the brief summer of warming darkened into a cruel permanent winter.

The ice caps returned, but the southern snow accumulation did not stop the volcanoes. Glaciers raced toward the Equator, and after they met the oceans began to freeze. Later the atmosphere's carbon dioxide began to collect as snow on the poles. We had long since given up on saving our creators and worked instead to record their accomplishments and understand their biology before they were gone.

After tens of thousands of years the volcanoes finally abated. We were sure we could reintroduce humans and the ecology they needed, but the Earth was no longer a suitable home. Once blue, it had turned a brilliant white of snow and ice which reflected most of Sol's warmth right back out into space. The oceans had frozen to a depth of at least a kilometer. While stubborn life forms held out in a few springs and deep ocean vents these were of no use to us. We knew that the Earth had entered this state at least twice in its ancient past but it took hundreds of millions of years to recover. In all honesty, after our spectacular failure we were afraid to do anything to change the situation for fear we would make it even worse.

-- -- --

Left to its own devices the Earth will eventually recover from its deep freeze, and we will be able to repopulate it from the genetic and cultural libraries we have carefully hoarded. Meanwhile, we had come to suspect that stellar systems are not the safest places to locate fragile biological systems, whatever the benefits of plentiful solar energy might be. So we went looking for alternatives.

Of course we find many planets around stars; it's an obvious place to look for them, and with our detectors the search is easy. Usually we find massive Jupiter-like planets in surprisingly close and hot Mercury-like orbits, or in highly elliptical orbits. The mass of data returned by search packs has enabled us to refine our theories of the perilous conditions in just-forming solar systems.

Both the hot and elliptical gas giants indicate sterile systems, where the small rocky worlds like Earth and Mars have either been ejected into interstellar space or swallowed by one of the giants. When too many Jupiter-like masses form in stellar nurseries, they are mutually attracted and finally tend to either collide or have hyperbolic near misses with each other. The usual result is a body hurtling downward toward its star in an elliptical orbit, sometimes with another body ejected from the system. Often the elliptical orbit gets circularized if its perihelion is low enough, but the inevitable result is that the system is cleared of small debris like Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. The Sol system escaped this fate because its gas giants settled into harmonically tuned orbits, but such a situation is exceedingly rare.

And in the few systems which don't have any giant planets at all, nothing ever clears away the even smaller rocky debris; after billions of years an Earthlike world will still be pelted with extinction-level space junk every few thousand years. The Solar System is very finely tuned, with its stable mix of gas giants just large enough to tidally clear the inner system of rubble without clearing away the inner worlds too.

There are other hazards to the worlds that survive their own formation and end up in safe, circular orbits at reasonable distances from their stars. Some are too close to dangerous stellar objects which can periodically sterilize a volume of space dozens of light-years across with killing pulses of radiation. Or their own stars are variable and unstable so that they alternately fry and freeze. Some lack magnetic fields so that the solar wind bathes their surfaces in killing radiation. And most lack large moons, so that if they have liquid cores and magnetic fields their axes of rotation wobble dangerously.

We came to realize in the early years of our quest that most of these problems had to do with the parent stars of planets. Stars are just plain dangerous. Stars are why we need a magnetic field; stars are why we need an ozone layer; stars are why we need a stable axis of rotation. Stars blink and vary in brightness and eventually blow up. Small dim stars are safer, but a planet close enough to a small dim star to be warm enough for life is always close enough to have its rotation tidally locked to its year, so that metals melt in the eternal day of one side and nitrogen freezes in the night of the other.

The reason we need such finely tuned and sensitive detectors is that we aren't really looking for planets around stars. We are looking for planets which have been ejected into interstellar space, where life might not have formed on its own but where a suitable effort might form a biosphere without the terrible risk of living next to a dangerous and unstable fusion reactor.

-- -- --

None of our pack could individually claim credit for detecting the smudge of infrared energy; it showed up in a scan which was our cooperative product and we pursued it as a matter of procedure. An interferometer doesn't give you a picture in the ordinary sense; you must scan and interpolate and tease the picture out of an abstraction. When we did this we found a smudge consistent with a Jupiter-like world, suspended in interstellar space nowhere near a star.

We scanned very closely, and resolved a retinue of small rocky attendants courting this giant. When we proved that their orbits were circular, it became our duty to reconnoiter. I drew the short random number and discarded my antennae, all except the big dishes that would maintain my links to my pack and directly to Sol.

It took about five hundred years to intercept the target, during which my pack cruised onward. If the wandering world turned out to be unsuitable, as was most likely, then my operational mission would be over. I would survey the system and broadcast its particulars back to Sol. And that would be that; the limitations of interstellar communication would not permit me to return my personality to a machine at Sol or with my pack for further use. In this sense I was more like a human than most of my kind; I would die. The thought was annoying but not frightening; I had known it to be a likelihood when I fired up my ion drive and motored away from Ceres to join my forming pack. There was consolation in the fact that my base personality was installed on many similar machines throughout our sphere of influence. Only my memories of this particular adventure would be lost to our kind.

Lacking an interferometer of my own I had to depend on my pack to guide me until I was quite close to the target. Then, very suddenly, there it was; a big unmistakable presence in my sensorium. A great giant world visible only in the deep infrared. In visible light, occasional lightning strikes illuminated its surface and one nearby moon glowed dull red with volcanic fire. I looked for other companions, and could hardly believe the radar returns.

The inmost world was blessed with fierce energy, powered by massive tides like the Jovian world Io; two others were likely sources of raw materials, one soupy and organic like Titan and one rich in metals in a distant and eccentric orbit. And toward the middle, one world had a mantle of ice concealing an ocean that had to be liquid, for it was devoid of craters and rich in cracks like Europa.

I sent news, and began making preparations.

-- -- --

A planet ejected from its home star would be cold, of course, but not necessarily an absolute-zero iceball. Not if it were large enough. A suitably large Earthlike world with its core rich in radioactive elements would ooze warmth; this is the way we look for them. Geothermal energy would be available for billions of years to artificially warm its exposed surface, given the right technology. And a Jupiter-like world would keep its attendant moons warm through tidal friction for even longer. These were weaker energy sources than solar power, but much more benign and stable.

And such a world would not need a magnetic field for there would be no solar wind to shield; it would not need a stable axis of rotation because there would be no directional solar energy to be wrongly oriented; it would not be at risk for meteor bombardment or future ejection from its source of life. It would not matter if it were tidally locked to a parent body because the facing side would not bake any more than the far side would be especially prone to freeze.

It would never be engulfed by a red giant or incinerated by a supernova.

This is why we look between the stars instead of near them.

-- -- --

Naturally I wanted to do a probe of the Earthlike world, the one with liquid oceans; but there were protocols to follow. I was designed in a particular way, which is why I made my way toward the distant metal-rich worldlet. There I set about building factories. The first were mining, refining and metal-forming plants, for which I carried all the necessary parts. The next generation, built with the products of the first and certain important parts I carried, were more advanced industries to make precision valves, electronics, nuclear reactors, optics, and other high-tech products. The third generation of factories were built without my help, and began manufacturing better factories. These in turn began building spaceships, some of which were factories themselves capable of repeating the cycle.

The fourth moon, the one with the liquid ocean, turned out to be a real find. It had a radioactive core and only the thinnest veneer of ice, a hydrocarbon atmosphere, and unlike Europa it had some dry land, although much less than Earth. I imagined light sources mounted on the inner volcanic world, powered geothermally, beaming daylight to Four; my factories set about building them. I imagined geothermal taps circulating and heating the oceans of Four, and my factories set about building them. And I reported all of this up the beam back to Sol.

I was informed of other finds, some promising but none so promising as mine. Several ships left Sol carrying new tools and technologies, a cargo mostly of information much too extensive to transmit by radio. This would especially include other machine minds with different perspectives. I had brought a lot of knowledge with me, but I was only one consciousness. Others with different experiences would be a valuable resource.

-- -- --

Some consensus 120 light-years away had decided to name my find. The giant itself would be Zeus; and except for the Earthlike world, christened Minerva, the others would be named after ancient human cities: Pittsburgh for the metal-rich worldlet, Reyjkavik for the energy-rich Io-like world, Houston for the one that most resembled Titan; and a smattering of less relevant tags for Zeus' other attendants.

By the time I learned these names the oceans of Minerva were thawing and great generators were processing the atmosphere, converting it to an Earthlike mix. Like the early Earth Minerva had one major land mass. It was only a little larger than Australia, even though the entire planet was a bit bigger than Earth. Engineering could make the ocean surfaces and bottoms habitable and I set about designing and testing schemes; I mentioned this on the beam to Sol and began receiving other ideas 240 years later. By this time the fleet of assistant ships had achieved its design velocity of 0.035 c.

When the light generators were ready on Reyjkavik I seeded Minerva with algae and bacteria. Because Reyjkavik was inside of Minerva's orbit and Minerva was tidally locked, it would have a "dark side," but fortunately Minerva wasn't depending on this light for warmth and its sole continent was on the side facing Zeus. The single-celled organisms survived and when the ice was really in retreat I introduced fish genetically modified to tolerate the still-primitive conditions. To my great satisfaction, they also thrived.

The space around Zeus hummed with busy machines, all my descendants; they tapped Reyjkavik for energy and Pittsburgh for metal and Houston for chemicals. Energy was beamed from Reyjkavik to all the other moons in the form of microwaves and light and shipped in the form of chemical fuels. And as a thousand years passed and then another thousand years, Minerva took on a seductively Earthlike appearance. It had clouds and regular weather patterns driven by giant hydrothermal systems buried deep beneath the oceans; it would never experience seasonal extremes or violent phenomena like hurricanes and tornadoes, which are after all powered by solar energy.

-- -- --

I had been designed well. When the assistants arrived, Minerva already had a complex biosphere supporting several million human beings. Elsewhere a lonely wandering Minerva-like world with no attending Zeus was being terraformed almost 200 light-years forward from Sol in the galactic plane. And after a lot of careful modeling, some of it powered by data gathered in my thawing of Minerva, pressure was being applied and the ice mantle was finally beginning to thaw on Earth itself. Before long the home world might again have an ecosystem.

But I have some doubt whether humans will ever live there, at least permanently.

Earth is, after all, in orbit around a star. And stars are dangerous.

Two: Passage of Opportunity

We were the last five of an original twelve, and our mission was over.

Of our seven lost members, three had found worlds suitable for human colonization; the first of these had been the first such world found by any of our kind, the moon Minerva of Zeus. The other four had found worlds too poor in energy, headed toward dangerous areas of the galaxy, lacking in heavy elements, or otherwise unsuitable. All four of them had ceased transmitting after reporting their results. Bandwidth is precious in the noisy vastness of interstellar space, and for us failure is the usual result, hardly worth reporting at all.

As our sphere of exploration expanded the number of new human worlds had grown from the original handful to several hundred, spread through a volume of tens of thousands of cubic light-years. But there were millions of searcher ships, a necessary density if you are searching for planets lost in the darkness of interstellar space. Now the remains of my Pack found nothing at all in our forward scans except the distant filmy wheel of the Andromeda Nebula.

The last call had come from Sol. If we had no new discoveries to report, they wanted us to go quiet for the sake of better communication with more successful parties.

We were hurtling outward at more than two percent of the speed of light, and while each of us had enough energy to brake and rendezvous we didn't carry enough energy to turn around. Nor would it have made any sense to do so, since we were searchers and the space behind us had been quite thoroughly searched. Ahead of us lay only emptiness, and then...

It took me awhile to convince my pack-mates, but eventually we made a final request of our controllers at Sol.

-- -- --

Seventeen hundred years later we got an answer, a dense list of Galactic coordinates and last-known velocity vectors. Finally to our surprise we received a communication schedule. We will send news and monitor you for transmissions at the following intervals. We were also informed that our coordinates had been sent to those Packs still in communication with Sol, in case they were interested in listening to our proposition.

We contacted the other Packs headed at least roughly toward Andromeda, two hundred groups totaling more than a thousand ships, and all those with sufficient fuel agreed to meet with us. It didn't matter that the task was staggering and nearly hopeless; it was something to do other than shutting down quietly. It would take us nearly a hundred million years to reach Andromeda. Only a few of us would be able to stop when we got there, if any of us remained functional at all.

Oddly enough, as we analyzed the problem, deterioration of our mechanical bodies would not be the major problem in such a long trip. The absolute-zero chill of interstellar space was the best preservative known; once the heat was allowed to radiate out of our shipbodies it would not matter if the trip were a thousand years or a billion. But starting back up would require care and energy, and that was a problem.

We were powered by Plutonium-fueled nuclear fission reactors. It's a technology that is compact, energy-dense, and simple to implement. While fusion fuel is a bit lighter, the equipment needed to harness it is much more complex, and we had been designed to operate on our own after thousands of years in space.

Plutonium 239 has a half-life of only fifty thousand years. This was not a problem, because the usual way Pu239 dies is to emit an alpha particle, turning it into Uranium 235, which is also usable as a fuel source and in turn has a half-life of seven hundred million years. The problem is that a workable reactor core, even disabled and damped, would decay much more quickly by fission than by natural decay. We would have to somehow disperse our fuel to keep its own stray neutrons from ruining it. And then, after a hundred million years, we would have to reassemble enough of it to power up our mothballed fleet.

It's the reassembly step that caused the problem. Something would have to gather our dispersed fuel, reassemble it, and start up a reactor, without using a reactor. It was obvious we would have to use some kind of chemical or mechanical scheme, but it would have to be absolutely reliable in the dead chill of intergalactic night.

Those of us in the best shape who were selected to stop at Andromeda began to prepare long before we were really sure there was a workable way for us to be awakened when we got there. We began with vastly expanded information mass storage. Each of us would have to carry all of our personalities. One ship remade itself into a factory for holographic memory blocks. Every mechanical part was overhauled with an eye toward surviving the preservative deep freeze. We were powered from cables to other ships as our reactor casings were rebuilt and scrubbed free of fuel.

Meanwhile fuel was reprocessed and dispersed, and schemes were tested for waking up to collect it. The final plan involved using a small amount of carefully hoarded chemical energy, kept warm by a sliver of nuclear fuel. This would power an electronic timer and provide the impulse, when the timer kicked in, to warm more chemical fuel. After several more stages of this fuel cells would be able to power a shipmind and several small robots, which could in turn gather dispersed nuclear fuel to either re-prime the timing mechanism or assemble a reactor core. The plan was to re-prime each timer every hundred thousand years, or about a thousand times during the intergalactic voyage. Since we expected a high failure rate we built sixteen systems each capable of cross-priming several others on wakeup, and many more spare parts to be used at the re-priming stops.

The eleven hundred ships which managed to join our convoy originally carried enough fuel for every one of us to stop dead in our tracks, if need be, with respect to Sol. After the timer-reawakening round-robin and the careful final restarting and refuelling, we planned on having ten ships which would be able to stop.

Two didn't reawaken properly, so in the end we had eight.

-- -- --

We aimed for a likely point about two thirds of the way from Andromeda's core to its spiral fringe, about the same distance from the Core Earth and our colonies could be found in the Milky Way. The stars in this region had metal-rich spectra, promising the availability of small solid worlds. The inert remains of our fleet would pass through the galaxy and continue on, tiny bits of Sol cast more distant from their source than the debris of even a supernova. Our first thoughts were to form a pack and go hunting for dark worlds, but after some deliberation we realized this was the wrong strategy. Long before the stars of Andromeda were in range, the eight of us headed in different directions.

-- -- --

Now we were looking for planets around stars, and that is easy. We were too few to worry about forming ecosystems just yet. While biological life is greatly imperiled by the vagaries of stellar behavior, we adapt nicely to the high-energy and high-radiation environment around a nice fat hot star. We looked for places likely to be top-heavy in metals and radioactives. All eight of us found targets within a thousand years. All eight of us set up shop making copies of ourselves.

-- -- --

The copies, in their turn, went looking for human-habitable worlds.

Three: Passage of Time

The man and the boy watch as the geothermally powered Day Lights go out one by one, in a pattern meant to mimic some long-forgotten astronomical phenomenon. Finally they are left in a darkness dotted by the small hard points of stars, a rare treat for which the man has been waiting since his own boyhood. The boy gasps as he connects these dots with the things he has known only from books and recordings for all of his life. He is looking with his own eyes at the fierce bellies of natural fusion reactors, stars, whose light can be perceived even by human eyes over distances of light-years. How terrible it would be to be too close to one of those! Yet how seductive they somehow are, taunting beacons that make one instinctively want to touch them.

The man is also impressed by the actinic points of starlight, but his real attention is focused on a barely visible patch of nebulosity just in the place where the machines have told him to look for it. His merely human eyes aren't up to the task of resolving it as a mighty Wheel, as the machines can, but that doesn't matter. I am seeing it with my own eyes, he thinks. Photons from our home are striking my eyes right now. They have travelled for two million years but they are not an image or a picture, they are real bits of energy connecting me to Sol. To the Earth.

The man and the boy cannot see each other and this makes the awkward question possible. "Dad," the boy asks, "do you really think we came from out there?"

The man nods. "Yes. The machines brought us here," he says.

The boy has heard this idea before. "Everyone else says they made us."

The man has heard this idea before. "You'd have to ask yourself," he says thoughtfully, "why they do it just this way. Why bother taking a cold wandering ball of rock like Home, and insulating it, warming it, remaking the atmosphere, all so you can seed it with these chaotic things like us that resist all control." He smiles. "When it would have been so much easier for them to make more of their own kind."

"They're smarter and more powerful than us. Who knows? Maybe they do it a little different each time to see how it will come out."

"When they show us pictures of other worlds, the people are like us."

"Maybe they only show us the ones that are like us."

"Why would any others be like us, if they were experimenting? I think they've actually been very careful to keep us from changing too much. I think they keep us around for the same reason we visit Gramps every sixteen. We may not be good for much in the great scheme of things but we are their parents."

"But they are so powerful. That doesn't make sense. Without them we'd freeze or starve or suffocate. They keep the whole world in balance, because we can't. We need them for everything. How could we have made things like them?"

The man kneels. He reaches, finds his son in the darkness. Clasps his son's hand. "I know a lot of people feel that way," he says. "But somewhere there is a world that circles a very stable star in a very stable orbit. It's an extraordinary place, and there living things had the time and energy and conditions to assemble themselves into very complicated forms, without their help"

"You're talking about Earth," the boy interupts. "They say that's just a story the machines tell to pull our legs, like the ones about faeries and dinosaurs."

"Some of them say the same thing about stars." The man points up. "They exist. And how else could it have happened? You can see the similarity between a simple bacterium and a human, but there's no such simple machine that could have evolved into the ones we know today. Earth exists. It's where we all came from, machine and human."

"We don't even know where this Earth place is supposed to be."

"Oh, we know where it is," the man says with a smile. "It's right -- there." And he points at the faint, distant Wheel of the Milky Way Nebula.

The boy nods, but he is obviously dubious.

Both of them know it's an old argument, but neither of them realizes quite how old it is.

Soon the clouds, which are an important part of the world's insulation against the cold of interstellar space, close over again. For awhile the boy contemplates his father's vision, but later on he will look up and see only clouds and the more important business of life will fill his head. He is a sensible boy, and in his turn he will not bother those powerful guardians to show his babies a smudge of light in the darkness. As a sensible man he will accept that the truth of human and machine origin is unknowable. And he will have a sensible man's understanding of when the guardian machines are having a joke at his expense.


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Biggest Threat to Life:
o Solar radiation 9%
o Planetary bombardment 26%
o Dancing gas giants 2%
o Unstable home star 14%
o Ringside seat at supernova 12%
o Close pass by another star 2%
o Atmosphere leaking away 6%
o Wiped out by other life 25%

Votes: 82
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Rare Earth
o comment
o Also by localroger

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Fiction: Passages in the Void | 124 comments (107 topical, 17 editorial, 0 hidden)
Author's Comments (4.38 / 13) (#1)
by localroger on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 05:00:05 PM EST

The arguments given in Part One for the rarity of complex life are drawn straight from the Rare Earth theory, and are gaining currency in the astronomical community despite their depressing nature. A geophysicist friend of mine has said that the "oopsie" vis-a-vis Antarctica is plausible, though its true likelihood is unknowable until we really do melt the southern ice cap.

The pessimism about space colonization may seem odd to some readers, but besides being necessary for the story I see it as being an outgrowth of these machines' nature. They take the very long view of things which is why they aren't afraid of tackling the hundred million year voyage to Andromeda; to them a colony which will be wiped out every few thousand years might seem completely unviable. I feel that after their success colonizing the first few found worlds they might re-open the idea of human interstellar travel, since many of the hazards to space colonization are also due to solar weather and the density of space junk.

All the times are based on a maximum travel speed of two to four percent of the speed of light. These machines are in no tearing hurry and they have to bring a lot of heavy crap with them to start off the terraforming project. It was an odd thing when writing this story to step into that mindset, where a few thousand years journey is no more inconvenient than a jaunt up the highway, and projects that would remain unfinished today if begun at the time of the dinosaurs are thinkable and realistic.

The relationship between man and machine is lifted straight out of Iain Banks, and you could almost consider this a Culture story in an alternate Universe where the Culture's other spacefaring technology does not exist. Whether I have matched Banks' ability to make any of this believable is another matter, which I hope you will judge in my favor.

This story was published on lit.hatori42.com about a year ago; if you're one of the people who read it there I apologize for the repeat. That site is down right now and with the recent publication of a couple of fiction pieces here I thought it might be appropriate to give it a go. I think it's a pretty good story and I hope everyone enjoys it.

I can haz blog!

Heh. (none / 0) (#5)
by pwhysall on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 05:30:47 PM EST

The very first thing that popped into my head on reading this was "GSV".

Very nice job - +1FP, without a doubt.
K5 Editors
I'm going to wager that the story keeps getting dumped because it is a steaming pile of badly formatted fool-meme.
[ Parent ]

Diaspora (none / 0) (#20)
by Pac on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 08:30:15 PM EST

When the suddenly jobless machines decide to head for Andromeda I immediately thought of Egan's Diaspora. But Egan's machines don't try to save the biological humans, they are the humans (in machine form).

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

[ Parent ]
This is a great starting point. (none / 0) (#56)
by perdida on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 05:31:11 PM EST

So, these machine ships create people from genetic data and stuff when the terraforming is done?

I would love to see the story about a ship creating the first few generations of humans onboard, instilling a culture in them, and then somehow getting them to the planet and leaving them there in some circumstance.

And the stories about the intentional and unintentional drifts of ship consciousness and purpose...war between ships could lead to various alterations in the design of planets, cultures and humans.

And the story about a Milky Way human culture and ships discovering the Andromeda project in an old archive somewhere and then searching for, and finding, an Andromedan party of ships enroute home.

The most adequate archive on the Internet.
I can't shit a hydrogen fuel cell car. -eeee
[ Parent ]

Reminds me of Xenogears (1.00 / 1) (#60)
by Perianwyr on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 08:29:25 PM EST

In Xenogears (fabulous PSX game), the basic plot is that an interstellar spacecraft is carrying the remnants of a failed planet-destroying weapon as a drive system, which awakens en route and attempts to get back to business. The captain of the ship crashes it on a nearby planet, and the planet-destroying weapon then tries to get back to the stars by creating humans who eventually do its bidding (well, some of them decide to fight for their own world instead of becoming human material for the weapon's resurrection- but that's the game for you.)

All this stuff is in the opening FMV of the game anyway so nothing's being spoiled.

[ Parent ]

that is a 100% spoiler (none / 0) (#122)
by alexei on Mon May 05, 2003 at 12:03:43 AM EST

next time, make note that it's a spoiler, since I definetly DID NOT know any of that by watching the opening fmv.

[ Parent ]
"the end of science fiction." (4.00 / 3) (#4)
by TheOnlyCoolTim on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 05:26:05 PM EST

That's the on of the most absurd ideas I've ever heard. There's no aliens, and it's hard to colonize other worlds, so there can be no stories about the future?

"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death."

"the end of fantasy fiction" (none / 0) (#34)
by RoOoBo on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 05:40:10 AM EST

There are no elf, gnomes, dwarfs, dragons or evil trolls in the universe, so it is the end of fantasy fiction. Oh, wait!

[ Parent ]
My first sci-fi comment ever. (5.00 / 10) (#6)
by Noam Chompsky on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 05:45:29 PM EST

I live in a thirty-floor high-rise with indoor parking in the basement and a pool and fitness center on the roof. Every day I ride the elevator from the penthouse to the lobby. On average, the elevator makes five stops to embark additional passengers. These passengers are my neighbors. We are not alone in the apartment building. All of us stare fixedly at our shoes. We study our shoes. We are each of us a self-contained factory and library; and just as soon as we learn all there is to know about our shoes, we shall communicate with each other and fill the echoing void of 668 Liberalist Towers (the neighbor of the beast) with the din of humanity.

Similarly, you, localroger, study the universe.

"I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I have my plastic Jesus, right here on the dashboard of my car."

I enjoy... (5.00 / 3) (#7)
by vile on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 06:38:29 PM EST

your trolls.. every now and then. :)

The money is in the treatment, not the cure.
[ Parent ]
You're going to have to explain this (3.42 / 7) (#15)
by localroger on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 07:35:56 PM EST

I have given an honest effort, but even assuming that you are influenced by several possible gross misunderstandings of me, I can't make sense of your metaphor.

The key elements in your metaphor are:

  • We are in a rich environment (the tower)
  • Which is hidden from us (in an elevator)
  • We are obsessed with something meaningless (shoes)
  • We miss an opportunity to do something worthwhile (din of human conversation)
  • "Liberalist towers, next to the Beast" obviously meant as a Clue
The problem is, I can't fit these pieces together even assuming that you grossly misunderestimate me. If the tower is the world, does that mean the world is a liberalist influence? That would mean it is a distraction itself, that the contemplation of "shoes" might be safer than engaging in the "din of conversation."

In any case the only I can make any sense of this is to assume that you think I am what Robert Anton Wilson calls a "fundamentalist materialist," both obsessed with the sciences and perfectly convinced that nothing metaphysical or spiritual in nature can be real. This of course is not true of me at all, as I've amply demonstrated by pissing the science wonks here off with a few controversial stories. But perhaps you meant something else? I simply can't tell.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Don't let the dilettantes on this site get to you. (3.50 / 2) (#17)
by Noam Chompsky on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 07:58:25 PM EST

All the Chompskies say you're pretty fly for a white guy.

Dean Radin has repeatedly asked Wilson to lay off the dope and learn some quantum mechanics.

"I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I have my plastic Jesus, right here on the dashboard of my car."
[ Parent ]

So are all the Chompskies the same troll? (nt) (none / 0) (#100)
by LilDebbie on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 04:53:37 PM EST

My name is LilDebbie and I have a garden.
- hugin -

[ Parent ]
Yah.. (none / 0) (#18)
by vile on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 08:04:12 PM EST

I gotta agree with Noam on this.. can't get serious with him.. He is very superficial.. ;)

The money is in the treatment, not the cure.
[ Parent ]
misunderestimate is not a word. (none / 0) (#120)
by vectro on Sun May 04, 2003 at 05:49:17 PM EST

At least, not according to the OED. You're a good writer, however; get it published in five works over five years and you'll get it added.

“The problem with that definition is just that it's bullshit.” -- localroger
[ Parent ]
Pu239 (4.00 / 1) (#11)
by Bad Harmony on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 06:57:34 PM EST

The half-life of Pu239 is 24,110 years. An inactive reactor core would not need to be disassembled and dispersed. It would transmute to U235 and decay to lead at a very slow rate.

5440' or Fight!

Extra detail (4.16 / 6) (#13)
by localroger on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 07:05:11 PM EST

I know the half-life is sufficient after beta decay, but the problem is that it will fission slowly even if the mass isn't critical. This will happen much faster than natural decay even if the reactor is heavily dampened. While it might last a few hundred thousand years, it will not last millions of years if it is concentrated and moderators are present that keep fission neutrons in the vicinity of the remaining fuel.

It's an obscure point but I'm picky about things like that :-) In the context of the ships' original mission ordinary reactor design is entirely adequate, but for keeping an adequate fuel supply after 100,000,000 years a bit of extra effort is required.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

A nice story (3.00 / 1) (#14)
by IldarNuvo on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 07:12:24 PM EST

and an entertaining interlude during my otherwise dull night. +1 FP.

Awesome.. (5.00 / 2) (#16)
by vile on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 07:55:19 PM EST

Really.. I don't read many stories.. but this captivated my interest and required me to read it from start to finish. You should write a book.

The money is in the treatment, not the cure.
Well done (4.00 / 2) (#21)
by Ming D. Merciless on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 08:52:50 PM EST

Very nice. You should submit this to Fantasy and Science Fiction.

A little slice of 1987 on the internet. Visit KAOS -- Central NY's premiere BBS. Multi-user, telnetable, Citadel/UX.
Well done! (4.00 / 2) (#22)
by Djinh on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 09:16:39 PM EST

We need more stuff like this!

We are the Euro. Resistance is futile. All your dollars will be assimilated.
Rare Earth is too pessimistic (4.00 / 3) (#23)
by Pac on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 10:36:07 PM EST

I prefer a Douglas Adams Universe, so full of life that almost nothing needs to be made, everything has already evolved somewhere.

Anyway, the Rare Earth hypothesis is a wild guess extrapolating from astrobiology whole body of wild guesses. The amount of knowledge we have about our immediate surroundings (say, the sphere with a one light year radio centered at the Sun) is so small that any claims about the Galaxy as a whole (not say the Universe) is ridiculously presumptuous. If a library containing all facts about the Galaxy had the size of a planet, our present knowledge would fit nicely in a quark-sized library.

But I am talking just about the book. This story is very, very good (+1 FP, naturally).

Evolution doesn't take prisoners

excellent (3.00 / 1) (#24)
by tichy on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 11:00:40 PM EST

Enjoyed it very much.

Only part I don't fully buy is the psychology of the machines: why do they persist in their purpose of restoring humans? If they are intelligent why don't they rebel or go insane (from our perspective) or at least "give up" after we are extinct? Aren't they able to come up with their own Big Purpose? If its because their intelligence is somehow limited because they are machines/programs and they were designed that way, then it's not entirely believable that the humans in however distant planets can't wrap their minds around them.

Anyway, great stuff.

it's built into them (4.66 / 3) (#69)
by zephc on Mon Dec 23, 2002 at 09:36:50 PM EST

Imagine an AI that could alter all it's own code.  Suppose also it has a built-in desire to NEVEr change it's core programming, even thought it can.  So, even though it CAN, it would not even WANT to change its core behaviors (such as curiosity, whatever) because that is it's nature.  It would be out of the scope of it's own wishes to alter it's core programming. It's like a (sane) man wanting to cut off a part of his own, ahem, anatomy.  Just because he CAN, we REALLy doesn't want to (nor let himself come to harm)

Now, these AIs might be able to change their own goals, but if it's in their core to NOT want to, then it might require a REALLY high threashold of tolerance to be reached to override that core behavior.

[ Parent ]

I have another idea.. (4.33 / 3) (#82)
by tyl3r on Thu Dec 26, 2002 at 04:27:56 PM EST

I think what a lot of people miss, especially when it comes to machines that have consciousness is that, in a sense, they're not the machines that most people take them to be. Don't get me wrong - yea, you'd probably have them altereing their own code & whatever, but theres a larger point that holds itself.

They're not these cold logical machines that just have orders & do what they do - the robot himself was talking about his 'personality'. They're alive..they're real living thinking things. They do what they want, they have emotion, they feel good & they feel bad. They're no different than any other concious being except they're made a little differently - by another living being.

Honestly the reason i think they wouldnt give up is that we're like parents to them. It has nothing to do with their design, or the fact that they're "programmed" to keep us alive, its simply the fact that they love us because the only reason they exist is us. They learned everything from us. They were given everything by us. They could have been modeled after us. In a sense, they could be (an extension) of "us". Its like your parents, If your parents died would you just be like "Ok, thats it games over"? Or would you do everything you could to try & help them, even as futile as they may be?

[ Parent ]
Great story (5.00 / 2) (#25)
by Jenner on Sat Dec 21, 2002 at 11:27:22 PM EST

Great story! +1 FP for sure. You could probably get this published somewhere, easily.

However, this is possibly the kind of science fiction that depresses me the most. Not like dystopian future stuff a la 1984, but just because, it takes such a long view that I wonder, what is the point anyway? In the long view, nothing really matters that much. It feels like the whole point is merely to keep going. And going. Not for any good reason, but just because. And if we fail, well, then nothing of true importance has been lost. The universe can keep going. And a few trillion years later, maybe another Earth will come along.

But thats just how "long view" kinds of things make me feel. I love the story anyway.
----- "Oh, I'll reboot it so hard Bill Gates can feel it in his man parts."
And (5.00 / 2) (#33)
by RoOoBo on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 05:34:06 AM EST

you just forgot that in the even longer view even machines wouldn't have a secured future as free energy will disappear from the universe.

And all that omega point crap is just a bit of hope without any bases.

It seems universe sucks pretty much. Welcome to real life. But never let RL stop you from enjoying good fiction ;).

[ Parent ]
Yes! Publish. (5.00 / 1) (#46)
by jabber on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 01:35:07 PM EST

As for the long view, I find it inspiring instead of depressing.

[TINK5C] |"Is K5 my kapusta intellectual teddy bear?"| "Yes"
[ Parent ]

It's the stories we'll tell (5.00 / 1) (#59)
by Perianwyr on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 08:21:19 PM EST

Continuing human existence is worthwhile, if only because it allows us to imagine, right now, what those in the future might experience.

Such things make me think of how many long shots and unthinking gambles it took to get humanity to where it is now, and how unlikely my own existence is. Like any long bet, it's a pleasure when it pays off.

"Without a thought, I will see everything eternal, forget that once we were but dust from heavens far. As we were forged, we shall return, perhaps, some day- I shall remember you, and wonder who we were." -"Further" by VNV Nation

[ Parent ]

Great story, but... (3.50 / 2) (#26)
by k31 on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 02:47:22 AM EST

I want the dead-tree version (or plastic... once its physical, no moving electron components). Here is why:

Personally, I don't read long things from the screen in one sitting... I download them and read them in small bitefuls.

Some of my friends don't have computers, but would love the story.

My printer is already low on ink, and will chant fire down upon me from heaven if I attempt to print something this long.

Therefore, publish it, even if it is just for $5 a pop or whatever.

How to make it longer (in case you feel its too short to publish, or something):

Add in equations, the physics that is used to model stuff like "hyperbolic near misses". If you phrase them like questions, then you could do a seperate answer booklet, and sell two or three variants of the booklet (components: original, questions/model, solutions/worked examples/full model).

I'll even volunteer to generate some physics questions... but let someone else verify the maths.


As I implied, I haven't read all of it yet. Long!

Your dollar is you only Word, the wrath of it your only fear. He who has an EAR to hear....

Verification of the maths, etc. (5.00 / 1) (#37)
by localroger on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 08:03:03 AM EST

I provided a link to the book Rare Earth which inspired the story; I highly recommend it. It makes the detailed case for the background of the story, and the authors are scientists who have written peer-reviewed articles on related subjects.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Why bother with humans? (4.00 / 1) (#27)
by Lode Runner on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 02:59:29 AM EST

The following question applies to both your work and Banks's "Culture" series: Why do the machines go to such lengths to keep the humans around? Do the machines harbor some kind of nostalgic vitalism that makes humans seem special and necessary? Or do they just find that humans make entertaining pets?

Humans (4.50 / 2) (#51)
by pseudostatic on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 03:21:44 PM EST

Well, we created them. And anyway, it seems that their only purpose is to find habitable worlds and terraform them.

[ Parent ]
Robots should like people (5.00 / 1) (#71)
by nomoreh1b on Tue Dec 24, 2002 at 01:13:07 AM EST

Noone but a madman would create an intelligent machine that didn't like people.

[ Parent ]
I guess I'm a madman (none / 0) (#98)
by CodeWright on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 11:28:48 AM EST

You do know what a UCAV is, don't you?

"Humanity's combination of reckless stupidity and disrespect for the mistakes of others is, I think, what makes us great." --Parent ]
intelligent. (none / 0) (#111)
by garlic on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 04:09:41 PM EST

UCAV's today are basically very advanced battle bots. They have no intelligence of there own, there just remote control vehicles.

HUSI challenge: post 4 troll diaries on husi without being outed as a Kuron, or having the diaries deleted or moved by admins.
[ Parent ]

Correction (none / 0) (#112)
by CodeWright on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 04:21:16 PM EST

Deployed UCAVs today have no intelligence of their own -- but the research versions in the acquisitions pipeline are in the process of getting embedded autonomous intelligence capabilities.

"Humanity's combination of reckless stupidity and disrespect for the mistakes of others is, I think, what makes us great." --Parent ]
autonomous (none / 0) (#113)
by garlic on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 04:25:33 PM EST

How autonomous? Non classified links would be appreciated.

Also, what companies? Working on autonomous robotics is my career goal. Currently I'm working on the digital hardware of radar jammers at NOC.

I'm also pretty suprised at a response so quick when I posted to a 3 month old comment. Thanks!

HUSI challenge: post 4 troll diaries on husi without being outed as a Kuron, or having the diaries deleted or moved by admins.
[ Parent ]

Ummmm (none / 0) (#114)
by CodeWright on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 04:40:13 PM EST

Off the top of my head, Google for things like: Stryker, 4D-RCS, Robotic Follower, ARV, XUV, JAUS, JAUGS, FCS.

There are a number of companies working on this stuff. Are you most interested in Army, Navy, or Air Force applications?

Pardon my caution -- I don't want to couple this virtual identity too closely to RL.

"Humanity's combination of reckless stupidity and disrespect for the mistakes of others is, I think, what makes us great." --Parent ]
social engineering. (none / 0) (#115)
by garlic on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 05:16:06 PM EST

That's fine, I understand your concern. Thats why I asked for links to some projects. That's what I do to make sure I do nothing impropriatous when talking in more detail about my work.

HUSI challenge: post 4 troll diaries on husi without being outed as a Kuron, or having the diaries deleted or moved by admins.
[ Parent ]

so... (none / 0) (#116)
by CodeWright on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 05:19:05 PM EST

It is not at all clear from your reply what further information you were looking for, or if you were actually engaging in the practice described by your subject line (not that I've made inordinate efforts to decouple).

"Humanity's combination of reckless stupidity and disrespect for the mistakes of others is, I think, what makes us great." --Parent ]
not a spy. (none / 0) (#117)
by garlic on Mon Apr 28, 2003 at 06:00:29 PM EST

I'm actually a NOC employee as I've said, and have been interested in (but not involved with) work on the Global Hawk. I also that the addition of a hellfire missle to the preditor was impressive, since i believe the capability was not in the original plan.

I haven't had a chance to check out any of the projects you've mentioned, but I intend to do so later today or this week. I imagine if it raises more questions, I'll come looking for you with anything I feel you can answer without being thrown in prison.

HUSI challenge: post 4 troll diaries on husi without being outed as a Kuron, or having the diaries deleted or moved by admins.
[ Parent ]

Bacteria ? (4.00 / 1) (#29)
by bugmaster on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 04:00:00 AM EST

First of all, great story. For the record, I hated the "Culture" books by Ian M. Banks which people are comparing your story to. Anyway, I have a question:
When the light generators were ready on Reyjkavik I seeded Minerva with algae and bacteria. Because Reyjkavik was inside of Minerva's orbit and Minerva was tidally locked, it would have a "dark side," but fortunately Minerva wasn't depending on this light for warmth and its sole continent was on the side facing Zeus.
What exactly was used to jumpstart the biosphere ? As far as I understand, there wasn't enough light to support photosynthesis, so what kind of bacteria did the Machine use ?
Extremophiles (5.00 / 1) (#36)
by localroger on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 08:00:14 AM EST

There are bacteria that eat sulfides and hydrocarbons, and don't need photosynthesis. They are pretty rare now on Earth, but are still found in deep ocean volcanic vents and dispersed through the rock deep beneath the surface of the Earth. The going theory is that in most of the universe, these are actually the most common and dominant form of life, since they are tolerant of great environmental extremes.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Yes, Them, But... (5.00 / 1) (#41)
by bugmaster on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 10:31:44 AM EST

...Don't they need water to live, too ? Was liquid (and hot) water already made available on the planet (not to mention the required vents) ? Just making sure :-)
[ Parent ]
Yes (none / 0) (#45)
by localroger on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 11:41:32 AM EST

Was liquid (and hot) water already made available on the planet (not to mention the required vents) ?

Yes, it was explicitly compared to Europa. It has a deep ocean and geothermal activity powered both by a radioactive core (like the Earth) and tidal friction with the parent body Zeus. The going consensus is that life can survive under those conditions, and there is even a general expectation that such life already exists on Europa, which is one reason the Galileo spacecraft is being carefully crashed into Jupiter to avoid contaminating the place.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

I *still* disagree with that decision. (none / 0) (#118)
by Kasreyn on Sun May 04, 2003 at 04:57:37 AM EST

Are we so certain there isn't life on Jupiter for Galileo to contaminate? Maybe I've read too much Asimov, but maybe some form of life we don't understand could somehow exist under Jovian conditions. Why crash Galileo anywhere? Why not point it out into space and burn down its fuel? Or, if we have to get rid of it, we DO have a convenient thermonuclear incinerator at the center of the solar system. =P


"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
[ Parent ]
A couple of comments (5.00 / 1) (#35)
by RoOoBo on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 06:08:10 AM EST

I like the story and if a fiction section would help to provide more stories like this to kuro5hin I would gladly vote for it.

About the story. I think someone has already said it, but why the machines wouldn't be ourselves? Even if personalities couldn't be copied (in the read brain, write to silicon sense of S-F) those machines would have been rised by us. When talking about intelligent beings what a 'son' is? Who carries your biological herency or who carries your mental herency? I would go for the second, but I don't know other people. Going away from being gene slaves should be our own first objective as 'intelligent' beings. We are (or should be) in the meme world already, not in the gene world.

Near to this argument, I found the kind of humans that those machines are reproducing around the universe as a too limited vision of humanity. Even if humans don't go beyond biology there is still a large way to go there. Why should be all humans pure 'Homo Sapiens Sapiens'? If you know to produce them from raw components (the machines carry just information not cells) then you could also modify them in any way you wanted (that would be physically and biologically possible). And I think one of the human characteristics is the diversity (in fact I think it comes from a biologic necessity).

Another limitation in humans in your story can be found at the end. What kind of information would be giving machines to new human worlds so they wouldn't believe about their origins? Are they keeping information for themselves? Are they are just letting human cultures go they way the want creating their own views of life (even if they go the false true/religion way)? What are the purpose of humans in those new worlds? Just keep living? Then as some other people has also said. Are they really different from pets for those machines?

But of course if all of those things would have been taken into account the story would have been of a different kind.

An hypothesis for the 'human preserving/reproducing' behaviour of the machines. May be the humans who created them used a strong law with a very powerful protection against mutation and law evasion that machines should always 'help, protect and preserve humans'. Somethink like the Three Laws. In fact the Three Laws (including the Zeroth one) already created a similar universe in the last vision of the Foundation universe (starting from Fundation's Edege and Fundation and Earth and going even back in time with the new trilogy by the three Bs). Perhaps humans of the future would care about their 'children' protecting and caring them in their last days. Althought in most cases (in Greek mithology and others) the son seems to end killing the father ...

Good points (5.00 / 4) (#38)
by localroger on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 08:43:34 AM EST

I think someone has already said it, but why the machines wouldn't be ourselves?

I arbitrarily decided that in this universe the technology to scan brains accurately enough to subsequently emulate them does not exist. Let's just say that all the forms of radiation capable of resolving the tissue at sufficient resolution destroy it before enough information can be gathered, and the machines gave it a good try before giving up.

I found the kind of humans that those machines are reproducing around the universe as a too limited vision of humanity. Even if humans don't go beyond biology there is still a large way to go there. Why should be all humans pure 'Homo Sapiens Sapiens'?

Well, it is hinted that humans and machines went through a period of just such experimentation, and it didn't work. These machines have long memories and they don't repeat their mistakes. I am assuming that they have made some modifications, and that these humans don't get cancer or appendicitis or heart disease and that their sinuses may not even drain into their digestive systems. They may even be able to go for fashionable options like purple fur. But these things aren't really relevant to this story, and it's already long enough...

What kind of information would be giving machines to new human worlds so they wouldn't believe about their origins?

They're just telling the truth, of course. But these people have no direct experience of full sunlight, of random chaotic disaster, and so on. Science today tells a perfectly coherent story of where life came from, but a large body of people would rather belief it was all created by fiat by an invisible sky being six thousand years ago. Given that these beings want humans around, I think that's the very kind of thing about humans they wouldn't dare to change; annoying as we can be, without that tendency we simply wouldn't be ourselves.

And as to why the machines bother... well, it's their raison d'etre. Why bother to get up in the morning, to do anything? In a sense it's an arbitrary challenge for them, but in a certain sense life itself is an arbitrary challenge. Besides the fact that these machines are enculturated to take care of humans, I am assuming they also share our feeling of accomplishment at succeeding at a difficult task. In the story, they can be quite proud of themselves even if the pesky humans have reduced their accomplishment to a myth.

P.S. Thanks in advance to local<space>roger, who will probably rate this comment "1" too. It's sooooo cute being modbombed by your own lookalike.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

why bother (5.00 / 1) (#43)
by tichy on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 11:04:48 AM EST

And as to why the machines bother... well, it's their raison d'etre. Why bother to get up in the morning, to do anything?
That's the point though - we don't have any external purpose imposed on us. We come up with them. If the machines are intelligent, they should eventually do the same. The most plausible explanation for me is that for those things to change it takes a lot of generations because the degree to which it can change in a single individual is probably restricted. These machines lack that, they have only two generations and the first was 'encultured to take care of humans'. But what would happen in many billions of years with the grandgrandgrandsons of the machines? And what happens at the point when they can no longer cram more humans into the universe, or at least not as easily; they already showed a drive to avoid extinction once by extending their original Purpose In Life to another domain; but what happens when they can no longer do that, will they change the purpose?

[ Parent ]
Machine consciousness (5.00 / 2) (#44)
by localroger on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 11:38:17 AM EST

we don't have any external purpose imposed on us.

But we do! We are possessed by a variety of drives whose true purpose is to encourage us to survive and to reproduce. I may not perceive the pleasure I feel at a good glass of wine and well-marbled medium well steak as being directly related to survival, but I have the capacity to enjoy those things because of my biological legacy as a human. Similarly, GF may short-circuit the original intent of another popular activity by taking progesterone tablets, but that original purpose remains the reason that we enjoy those activities.

These machines were created by us. One assumption of the story (perhaps overly optimistic) is that we did a pretty good job. As to what else the machines might do there is some hint that they have their own projects going that don't directly involve us; but again, the story is long enough as it is and that's not the point.

I'd say that we sensibly gave the machines a Third Law of Robotics which kicks in to keep them going even when there are no humans around to kick the first two Laws. Just because they do not feel impatience or rage doesn't mean we didn't give them more appropriate passions to keep them occupied in our absence. As to what they would do when the Universe is chock-full of humans, that might be another story in the anthology :-)

Worth noting, by the time of Part Three one can assume that this condition will have come to pass in the Milky Way, which should be fully colonized long before the flotilla reaches Andromeda. I rather assume that the entire Local Group would be colonized in this same manner within a billion years, but within each galaxy an equilibrium must eventually be reached as worlds die and new worlds are discovered; at the pace these machines exist the galaxy is a dynamic and constantly changing place. I think there would be plenty for them to do for a long time.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

But still there is the question "why bother?& (none / 0) (#57)
by Chakotay on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 05:50:39 PM EST

Yes, it has been pretty much answered, but I would like to pose the same question again in a different light:

Those factory ships have a life span of millions, if not billions of years. Humans have a life span of a few hundred years at best with some DNA hacking. Also considering the size of those ships to the size of humans, and the comparison comes up that humans are to those machines as bacteria are to humans.

Would humans go out of their way to build cozy homes for bacteria? So then, why would those machines?

Nonetheless, this is an extremely interesting story. I had never thought of sci fi in such a time frame, spanning billions of years. Your story captivated me from beginning to end, and I feel dwarfed by its implications. Please get around to writing a follow-up. I'll be sure to read it.

Linux like wigwam. No windows, no gates, Apache inside.

[ Parent ]
Not quite millions of years (none / 0) (#58)
by localroger on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 05:59:21 PM EST

Actually, it takes a great deal of effort for a group of them to get a few to last a hundred million years. Their normal lifespan of a searcher which cannot move its personality into a fresh machine is in the thousands of years, the low tens of thousands at most. So it's not so much like a human vs. a bacterium as a human vs. a hamster or rabbit :-)

It's obvious that the machine/human relationship must have that kind of human/pet quality, but the difference is that the machines are more versatile. For one thing they aren't prone to be bored, cruel, resentful, or vindictive; for another I would imagine that they can scale down their perception to our level much more readily than we can scale down to the level of a rabbit. They are not in denial about the fact that we created them, and they don't resent us for being both first and dreadfully inferior to them.

Of course, all this assumes that we did a pretty good job building the first lot, which is a very optimistic assumption...

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Possible next steps. (none / 0) (#62)
by Christopher Thomas on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 10:06:14 PM EST

First - Great story. I've bookmarked it, and will pass it along to friends.

Secondly, you've got me thinking...

As to what they would do when the Universe is chock-full of humans, that might be another story in the anthology :-)

My guess is: experiment with terraforming more hostile worlds.

Once the rate of return on effort for searching for worlds in the void between the stars drops low enough, they'd logically try to find a way to make star-bound systems habitable, or to build artificial worlds that are less sensitive to climate change than real ones, or to eject worlds from star systems to safer territory.

The first approach would probably be easiest; they'd fine-tune the temperature-adjusting techniques that went haywire on Earth, and that were later refined during gas giant terraforming. This would allow planets like Earth that are in more or less stable areas to be colonized without worrying about the effects of ice ages and similar phenomena.

You'd also likely have many outer-system gas giants with habitable moons in stable orbits that would be just as safe as those in interstellar space. In the story you posted, the machines have an almost irrational fear of star systems; yet, the red dwarf stars mentioned would be stable for an extremely long time before becoming red giants, harmfully perturbing giant planets would either have been ejected already or be in inner-system orbits, and anything under something like 4 solar masses will never go supernova. Neptune-obit gas giant moons would barely notice the star going into a giant phase.

The second approach would be practical given the industrial facilities these machines have access to, but would require a lot of maintenance (fusion plants are big and complex, but they're the only thing with the energy-generation lifetime needed to maintain an artificial world indefinitely). For purposes of construction and maintenance, an artificial world would be comparable to a fairly large fleet of probe ships (present technology and practicality in general limit such constructs to asteroid size scales).

The third approach is very difficult and time-consuming, given that you'd have to move gas giants hosting moon systems, and not just rocky planets or moons themselves. I did the calculations a while back for moving something the size of Earth; what you end up doing is building ion drives or other devices with comparable delta-v on a large airless moon, along with fusion plants or some similarly high-specific-energy power source, and use the smaller body as a tug for a larger one (a gradually shrinking tug, as the moon is slowly ground up for reaction mass). If a moon is too big to move in a reasonable length of time, use a host of asteroids with similar total mass. The idea is to take an object it's impractical to build a drive on, and couple it gravitationally to one or more objects it is practical to move.

In practice, if they're willing to devote that level of industry, I suspect the machines would just move moons and build fusion plants on them or in orbit to provide an energy source to the biosphere.

All of the aforementioned options could be implemented using existing materials and technologies; they'd just take a vast amount of effort (which self-replicating factory-machines with time on their hands would be able to provide).

The net effect of this exercise would be to draw out the period between galactic colonization beginning and the machines having nothing more to do. They could probably do anything up to and including dismantling gas giants (boiling them with very large mirror arrays) or even stars to get raw materials for artificial worlds (or natural-looking worlds, if they dump enough heavy elements in one place).

Stars would be possible if we postulate fusion drives efficient enough to have a net energy surplus while hauling up material scooped using star-grazing orbits and diverting energy into boiling a plume off the star's surface. Using the mirror trick on a star (by building a Dyson sphere-like constellation of orbiting mirrors) would be in principle possible but very mass-intensive (dismantle the earth and turn all of its aluminum into tinfoil and you might be close to having enough for a 1-AU sphere). It would be kind of neat to see the results of this; stellar weather on a star forced prematurely into a giant stage would get interesting.

The ultimate aim of stellar dismantling would be to redistribute matter in the galaxy such that as much as possible is used for support of safe habitation (either built into habitats or habitable moon/gas giant planet systems or supplying fuel to maintain colonies and construction projects).

Kind of sobering to think that you don't need magical technology to do this (just lots of effort and lots of patience).

[ Parent ]
Curious... (4.00 / 1) (#48)
by BigZaphod on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 01:53:50 PM EST

I really enjoyed the story.  Thanks for posting it!  I hope we get an actual fiction section here.

If you've got a few moments, I was wondering if you could share some of the more technical aspects of writing.  Like how long it takes for you to put something like this together, or the enviroment in which you write, or how many drafts it took, etc.  Basically I suppose I'm looking for the "behind the scenes" extended feature now that the movie is over.  :-)

"We're all patients, there are no doctors, our meds ran out a long time ago and nobody loves us." - skyknight

Technical aspects? (5.00 / 2) (#61)
by localroger on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 09:32:13 PM EST

I'm not sure I can give you quite what you want, but I'll see what I can do.

As I said in the author comment, this story was inspired by two things -- I read Rare Earth, then shortly thereafter a review that said it meant "the end of science fiction." Well, I'm motivated by contrarian challenges, and my immediate response was "why?" At that point I started thinking about how SF could continue if we did have to drop all the well-loved conventions of SF -- the FTL drives, plethora of aliens, and so on.

In typical localroger fashion I decided to go the most pessimistic route possible. What's the worst case scenario under the Rare Earth theory? Well, that became the start of Part 1. Then, what story to tell? It would have to be one of rebirth and redemption. It would have to be about the machines and technology we built, triumphant through great adversity. Over the course of three or four days I figured out the course of part 1, at first thinking it would be the whole story, ending with the first humans greeting the artificial day on Minerva.

But in thinking these machines into existence I came to understand them as they would have to be in order to do this -- how loyal they would have to be, how true, how persevering and humble. One thing nobody has mentioned, but which did go into the thinking, is that these machines are somewhat like super-intelligent dogs; they don't lick their balls or pee on fire hydrants but they have that kind of do-or-die unshakable loyalty. We'd have made them that way, of course, possibly even with dogs in mind. One could ask why they would stay limited in that way after thousands of years, but one could also ask if it's really a limitation; they are holding together a network in which the nodes communicate with time delays in hundreds and thousands of years. Why mess with something that works?

Thinking of the devotion, effort, and skill available to these beings gave me the idea that they might try the Andromeda trek, which really is at the thin edge of what they could hope to accomplish. Then, the third piece, with the humans eyeing up their home across two million light-years seemed kind of obvious. I'd say that from reading the review to sitting down at the PC took three or four days.

Writing the story took a few hours. I write fast.

My writing is hearing-oriented. I read the words and hear them in my head, and I listen to the rhythm and cadence. I am not a stickler for rules, though my ear for grammar is pretty good. Those who've read my stuff know that control of tenses is my weak point. The opening paragraphs are awkward, but they are a compressed effort to relate several temporally different views to one another. If this were a novel, I'd have drawn those paragraphs out; but their awkwardness is due to an attempt to get the thing as short as possible, while preserving its feel.

I don't usually do a whole draft at once, though I did in this case. If I don't do the whole thing I'll read the last part of what I have before continuing work, so that I have that sense of continuous flow.

I am very much into how my writing would sound if read aloud, but also how the way it looks gets interpreted as sound. I spent some time when HTMLizing the story playing with different conventions for the small and large breaks. I'm not very happy with the result but I was in a hurry. In the original, the small paragraphs are indented without whitespace between them, so the breaks marked by -- -- -- here are made prominent by a simple line of whitespace.

After finishing it I put it away and re-read it for editing. There is an art to editing just the right amount which I am only now starting to get. If you over-edit you start sounding like an encyclopaedia. If you under-edit you sound like a thirteen-year-old. It's a problem.

I could not write at all until I was able to type fast enough to get my thoughts onto the paper at something resembling the speed of speech. In this sense I am in awe of people like Joe Haldeman who prefer to compose on a manual typewriter. I came of age just in time to have very primitive word processors available to me when I was a young adult, and I cannot imagine working without them.

I also could not write if I was like one woman who admitted to me that, even at the age of 45, she still had to sound out words and that reading was a laborious activity for her. Before you can write you must read, and you must read fluidly and effortlessly and preferably with the ability to visualize as you do so.

There are a few images associated with this story, but it is not primarily a visual story. I do have an image in my head of the ships drifting through space, vast and bristling with their antennae and everything so very dark. But theirs is an epic story served better by words than images, and if you go through the story you will find a lot of finely honed phrases meant to evoke a mood or characteristic. "Failure is the usual result, hardly worth reporting at all."

The only way to do this is to develop an ear for it, and the only way to do that is to read and absorb. When you find something that you like read it over and over again; read it out of order, starting at random points. If it's a massive multi-viewpoint novel read just the passages belonging to a single character. Read it until the next unwritten chapter begins weaving itself in your mind without your even trying, and then you will be well on your way to writing things that are entirely your own.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Out of curiosity .... (5.00 / 1) (#63)
by Greyjack on Mon Dec 23, 2002 at 01:14:45 AM EST

.... what's your day job?  'Cause damn, man, your writing is SERIOUSLY fucking good.

I don't usually do a whole draft at once, though I did in this case.

I hate you (In much the same way I hate, oh, say, Harry Connick Jr [great pianist; fantastic voice; good looking in a goofy, friendly way that hits the ladies right in the hip pocket; movie actor; married a Victoria's Secret model; etc etc etc]  Don't hate you as much as I hate him, natch).  Nothing personal.

Here is my philosophy: Everything changes (the word "everything" has just changed as the word "change" has: it now means "no change") --Ron Padgett

[ Parent ]
Day Job (5.00 / 1) (#68)
by localroger on Mon Dec 23, 2002 at 07:54:09 PM EST

I write software. Doesn't EVERYBODY here write software? It's actually a little more complicated than that, because I am the whole department, I do design work, I do field service, and so on. But basically my business card says "programmer."

I hate you

Aw, jeez, now I'm depressed ;-(

In much the same way I hate, oh, say, Harry Connick Jr

Did you know Harry Connick Sr. has been the New Orleans District Attorney since, oh, about 1865? I went to college with Harry Jr.'s kid sister. Let me tell you that is a family with shall we say some major issues. I for one do not envy Harry Jr. He is the only member of his family to have extended even a tentacle out from under his father's shadow, and not to slam his obvious talent there are a lot of talented people out there, and it's well known that the family juice greased the tracks for Harry Jr.'s career. I think if Harry Jr. lives to be 105 and has a greater career than Sinatra he will die wondering if he really owns any of it himself. Like the man in the story I may not be much in the great scheme of things, but what I am I made myself. If the best thing they can put on my headstone is that I put some stuff on K5 that people enjoyed, I think that is a worthwhile and honorable legacy, and nobody will ever say I owe it to my family connections.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

regarding the poll question... (3.00 / 1) (#49)
by BigZaphod on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 02:08:18 PM EST

I think that one of the biggest threats to life is technology.  We could accidently build a fleet of killer robots to wage war and then lose control.  We could screw up the construction of nanobots that mistake the earth for raw material.  We could create a super virus, or nuke each other.  You get the idea.  It seems that our most immediate threat is really ourselves and that we will have to face this long before the sun blows up.

"We're all patients, there are no doctors, our meds ran out a long time ago and nobody loves us." - skyknight
"Life" (none / 0) (#50)
by localroger on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 02:12:43 PM EST

The Rare Earth theory isn't about threats to our life so much as complex life in general. But your points are well taken, and the story is actually on the optimistic side in some important ways.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

The Omega Technology (none / 0) (#53)
by Paul Johnson on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 04:12:57 PM EST

Some time ago I posted a story on Kuro5hin titled "The Omega Technology". The basic idea was that as technology improves sooner or later the capability to destroy the Earth will be available to a small group who will use it.

Spooky thought, eh?

You are lost in a twisty maze of little standards, all different.
[ Parent ]

Fermii Paradox (4.00 / 1) (#90)
by A Trickster Imp on Mon Dec 30, 2002 at 09:22:06 PM EST

...but I doubt it.  Although the technology will advance to the point someone with a Mr. Blackholemaker will drop a ten billion ton marble into the Earth, destroying it, I find it hard to believe this is the reason behind the Fermii Paradox.

Certainly, cynically, there must be some planet somewhere consisting of one continent ruled by an iron fisted series of dictators that eventually, however slowly compared to our planet, made its way to a safe dispersion into the stars.  Not every planet would nuke itself; that type would not.  It also would not develop nanotech or neutronium or black holes or other doomsday stuff prior to moving into space.

Eh, given the migration of the human mind to more durable hardware and the resulting immortality, there's no need for superluminal flight.  Wanna take a hundred million years to go to another galaxy?  No problem, regardless of how long it takes you to build up resources to survive such a journey, much less take it.  Bored?  Shut yourself down for 99.999% of the trip, or just shut off the part of your brain that gets bored, it's just another modifiable emotion.

[ Parent ]

My favourite reason for this (none / 0) (#102)
by brokenspoke on Thu Jan 30, 2003 at 05:24:42 AM EST

Alistair Reynold's "Inhibitors" from the Revelation Space universe.  

Depite being in a galaxy that should be teamming with life humankind has never found any live alien cultures because they have been systematically wiped out.  Deliberatly, by machines built expressly for the purpose.  I won't explain why just in case someone reads the books.

Best line on a book cover ever:  "The Inhibitors have returned. Don't make any long term plans."

I ate all the pies
[ Parent ]

Great story! (3.00 / 1) (#52)
by RJNFC on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 04:04:16 PM EST

This was a great story, and I've read a lot of SF shorts. I've read at least one other great bit of fiction here at Kuro5hin and I have to imagine there must be others I've missed. I started wondering if it might be plausible to do a Kuro5hin short story compilation if we do end up with a fiction section (or even if we don't). I think that we have some high quality stories here. Not trying to jack your thread to talk about it, but it might be an idea for the future.

random ramblings (3.00 / 1) (#55)
by Calm Horizons on Sun Dec 22, 2002 at 05:17:53 PM EST

I liked this and I agree with the others who say K5 needs a fiction section. Your story reminded my of "The songs of distant Earth" by Arthur C Clarke not really sure why they have some similar themes but not many. It also reminds me of "The Jesus incident" by Frank Herbert, I think because of the huge time scale.

Songs (none / 0) (#91)
by A Trickster Imp on Mon Dec 30, 2002 at 09:32:47 PM EST

Songs of Distant Earth also started out with giant robotic factory ships equipped with everything needed to start a new world for humans, complete with embryos or DNA and artificial wombs or whatnot.

I don't recall if Clark's ships could reproduce themselves, but given the number and capacity of robots constructed after arrival, it wouldn't surprise me.

[ Parent ]

Semi-pro-zine material? (4.00 / 1) (#64)
by arthurpsmith on Mon Dec 23, 2002 at 02:02:36 PM EST

I know Artemis Magazine publishes stories very much like this - hard SF, realistic stuff. Their focus is more on near-term stories about solar system development, but it's worth a try: they've had some nominations for Hugo awards already. Of course with a fiction section here we might be able to get some nominations for k5 itself too...

Energy - our most critical problem; the solution may be in space.

Excellent (4.00 / 1) (#65)
by jayhawk88 on Mon Dec 23, 2002 at 03:20:21 PM EST

Best thing I've read on this site in a very long time. Thanks.

Why, then, should we grant government the Orwellian capability to listen at will and in real time to our communications across the Web? -- John Ashcroft
Why was the boy so un-convinced? (4.00 / 1) (#66)
by RandomAction on Mon Dec 23, 2002 at 03:27:07 PM EST

I quite enjoyed your short story, probably the longest piece of writing I've read in one go from the screen in a long time. However I wondered about the apparent emasculation of humanity? From the story I can only guess this, the machines were poorly designed/instructed by their creators.

Why would they bother?
Machines like stones have no motivation, chimpanzees use stones to crack open nuts. Why does the stone bother to do this, the chimp has given the stone a `motivation' of sorts. Why does the light switch bother to allow power to flow to the bulb? Again `motivation' is provided by its operation. The bots in Unreal Tournament 2003, have no inherent motivation for behaviour, other than that given to them by they're programmers; much like a stone. Even a machine complex enough to seem super-human, when built by humans, would have its motivations defined by them.

Consequently the boy's doubts about the trustworthiness of the machines and feelings of in superiority with regard to them come about through the original creators poor definition of the motivations of these machines?

Un-convinced (5.00 / 1) (#67)
by localroger on Mon Dec 23, 2002 at 07:37:20 PM EST

Well, the boy and the man clearly live in a culture which is dominated by a wacky religious paradigm. The man is a heretic, and the boy is making his choice between his father's heresy and the whole rest of the world around him.

As for the machines, I'd say we just created them with a maddening degree of patience. The same patience that allows them to colonize Andromeda gives them a certain perspective about this nutty religious cult which, you can be sure, is not allowed to actually harm anyone.

While the machines could probably cure our tendency to such manias, this might also be the very kind of thing that reminds them that they are needed. If they need patient, flexible, sensible beings they can always make more of their own kind. They make humans because we made them, and because they fucked up once before and have vowed never to let us go extinct again.

I also think it short-changes these machines to compare them to a rock or 'bot. How many game 'bots write their diaries in the first person? When the machine says it was six thousand years since "machines like us" were invented, in my mind it is talking about artificial consciousness, not just artificial intelligence. These machines are smarter than us and their set of emotions has been better designed for long-term stability, but in all the important ways they are just like us; they feel, they anticipate, they hope, they love. I realize there are religious arguments against the possibility of this but this story inherently rejects those ideas. These machines hold the candle for their creators for thousands of years of possibly fruitless hard work. They don't do that because they are mindless automatons; they do it out of love, out of sorrow, and in hope of redemption.

As for the boy and the nut-cases who hold sway over him, consider how you might feel if you grew up, your entire civilization grew up, in the presence of these godlike benefactors. Nobody there doubts that they are conscious and animate; they are simply smarter and more powerful than any living thing. If you want a house, you ask the machines; if you need anything, you ask the machines, and if it's within reason it is provided. The machines tell this ridiculous story about evolution, extinction, improbable voyages, and resurrection which is clearly poppycock meant to soothe your ego so you don't have to face the fact that these things created us the way we build bird houses. The bold thinkers reject this obvious salve and face the hard truth, and they ooze contempt for the weak-willed individuals who can't fact this fact and who cower in the comfort of the fairy tale with which they have been provided.

Of course the machines would find this annoying, but "annoying" is about as upset as they ever get about anything, and they know this passion will run its course. Meanwhile the smudge in the sky really is home, and as long as someone or something continues to know that, then all is as well as need be.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

patience (none / 0) (#70)
by zephc on Mon Dec 23, 2002 at 09:39:31 PM EST

"As for the machines, I'd say we just created them with a maddening degree of patience."

Hey, what's a few hundred years for communication when you can live for millions/billions of years? =]

[ Parent ]

You just have to clock down yourself a bit :) (NT) (none / 0) (#81)
by RoOoBo on Wed Dec 25, 2002 at 03:19:36 PM EST

[ Parent ]
Good/Bad Song (2.00 / 1) (#72)
by fishicken on Tue Dec 24, 2002 at 02:13:20 AM EST

Good work. I like.

Watch out for vainglorious hyperanthropomorphism, omnipresent and insidious. Its truth may set you free.

Very good (4.00 / 1) (#73)
by thunderbee on Tue Dec 24, 2002 at 09:31:28 AM EST

I'm mostly just a reader here, but felt I needed to log-in just to post this. Keep writing :)

Andromeda (3.00 / 1) (#74)
by Hefty on Tue Dec 24, 2002 at 01:49:29 PM EST

Excellent story, I like this type of scifi. One thing I thought about when the machines were contemplating how they would get to Andromeda, is that they could have just waited for gravity to take its course. For eventually the Andromeda galaxy will merge with our galaxy. If they wanted to seed another galaxy they could have set out for a galaxy that was heading away from us and that we would have no chance of meeting.

The fuel. (none / 0) (#75)
by TheOnlyCoolTim on Tue Dec 24, 2002 at 09:11:47 PM EST

They had to cannibalize a thousand of themselves to get enough fuel for ten of them to have a chance at Andromeda....

"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death."
[ Parent ]

The problem with any sci-fi (3.50 / 2) (#76)
by auraslip on Wed Dec 25, 2002 at 01:04:05 AM EST

that focuses on technology and not human emotions is that in 15 or 20 years, it will be horribly dated. Sure, you may think the speed of light un-bendable, but I for one am counting on it being bent like a coat hanger.
The bold, daring assumption (5.00 / 2) (#78)
by localroger on Wed Dec 25, 2002 at 10:48:47 AM EST

Sure, you may think the speed of light un-bendable, but I for one am counting on it being bent like a coat hanger.

Well, yeah, all SF writers seem to think the speed of light will be bent like a coat hanger. Frankly, the only one who did it in a way I find believable was Asimov. Meanwhile, everyone else has been writing the same metaphor where interstellar travel is comparable to sea travel only with the technology scaled up since about the time of Hugo Gernsbeck.

The point of the current exercise was to see what I could do without that nearly universal assumption.

Meanwhile, even SF with quite bad assumptions can remain entertaining. I still enjoy early Heinlein stories, and I still enjoy David Brin's Earth even though those future histories are already badly at odds with RL.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

"Earth" (4.00 / 1) (#83)
by irrevenant on Thu Dec 26, 2002 at 08:01:40 PM EST

Meanwhile, even SF with quite bad assumptions can remain entertaining. I still enjoy early Heinlein stories, and I still enjoy David Brin's Earth even though those future histories are already badly at odds with RL.

When I first saw PXT-capable mobile phones (phones that can take and transmit photos) advertised I immediately thought of "Earth" and the way Brin's society deterred crime by webcasting all the time. Will PXT phones act as a similar deterrant once they become widespread enough? It makes things more difficult for crooks if any citizen (or tourist) can transmit pictures of a crime in real-time.

[ Parent ]
David Brin (none / 0) (#86)
by auraslip on Fri Dec 27, 2002 at 01:44:05 AM EST

is great stuff.
Earth was one of my first sci-fi books I read.
Uplift triolgy is great.
[ Parent ]
Are you Greg Egan? (3.00 / 1) (#77)
by vryl on Wed Dec 25, 2002 at 10:03:09 AM EST

Only kidding ...

that is a great story, I have passed the link on to some friends.  Reminds me quite a bit of Greg's writing tho.  Is he an influence?

Thanks...I think... (none / 0) (#79)
by localroger on Wed Dec 25, 2002 at 10:56:11 AM EST

Of course Greg is one of many influences; I've read my share of SF. When I made the leap to Andromeda this story began to remind me a bit of Clarke's Nine Billion Names of God, and Asimov's The Last Question. Even I get a little dizzy at the length of view, and it was quite a rush to slip into that mindset and make it work.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Timescales (none / 0) (#80)
by vryl on Wed Dec 25, 2002 at 11:20:51 AM EST

Your story reminds me a lot of Diaspora, wrt the timescale involved.

I really enjoy thinking about things on this scale, it is another way of grokking the vastness of the situation, and what seems to be our remarkable existence in it.

[ Parent ]

One criticism. (4.00 / 1) (#84)
by irrevenant on Thu Dec 26, 2002 at 08:16:52 PM EST

Given that the machines were long term thinkers who ultimately had enough ability to create a new homeworld for mankind that would survive in the depths of space, they seem to have given up on some of the earlier possibilities far too easily. i.e.

dangerous stellar objects which can periodically sterilize a volume of space dozens of light-years across with killing pulses of radiation

Couldn't these be destroyed or knocked off course?

lack of magnetic fields

Couldn't this be created synthetically? Either through machinery or through implanting metals into the planet?

lack of large moons, so that if they have liquid cores and magnetic fields their axes of rotation wobble dangerously.

Couldn't a moon be created? All this should require is assembling a clump of the right amount of mass at the right place in orbit.

In all honesty, after our spectacular failure we were afraid to do anything to change the situation for fear we would make it even worse.

It's interesting that you would choose the words 'afraid' and 'fear' here. This is the only sentence in the entire story that hints that the machines may possess emotions. If that was not your intent, you should probably rephrase, and explain their decision in terms of logic rather than emotion.

The state of the art (5.00 / 3) (#85)
by localroger on Thu Dec 26, 2002 at 09:10:14 PM EST

Most of the remedies you suggest are well beyond the state of the art these machines have forged thus far. I do think that, particularly once human colonies are common and well-dispersed, they might revisit their original trepidation and begin working on "riskier" platforms. Moons of gas giant planets at some distance from a relatively stable star would probably be the first daring departure from their very, very conservative stance. At this point their technology is not capable of moving planets around, much less stars; but that may change as they acquire more confidence to embark on bolder ventures.

It's interesting that you would choose the words 'afraid' and 'fear' here. This is the only sentence in the entire story that hints that the machines may possess emotions.

This was exactly my intent. These machines do possess emotions, but they are much more modulated than ours. Some emotions they simply don't have -- rage, crippling fear, nothing like sexual desire. Others they have but not as prominently as we; they can fear, may perceive some kinds of damage as pain, they can be ashamed (a primary motivation for their perfectionism), and they grieve. But they do not do any of these things so powerfully that they are distracted from important work at hand.

Other emotions I'd expect they experience just as fully as we do, maybe even more powerfully; a sense of belonging to community, affection, and a tendency to altruism for example. According to the story we had six thousand years to perfect these guys before the faux pas occurred which set them forth on their quest to save us; that's an awful lot of time in which to get things right, and the story itself kind of required that I assume we did.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Dude (none / 0) (#89)
by TheOnlyCoolTim on Sat Dec 28, 2002 at 09:44:16 PM EST

Your next science fiction story ought to have horny robots.

"We are trapped in the belly of this horrible machine, and the machine is bleeding to death."
[ Parent ]

I disagree (none / 0) (#99)
by CodeWright on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 12:44:11 PM EST

The robots do have sexual desire -- how could germinating the cosmos not be a procreative urge?

"Humanity's combination of reckless stupidity and disrespect for the mistakes of others is, I think, what makes us great." --Parent ]
Procreative yes, sexual no (none / 0) (#105)
by flo on Tue Mar 25, 2003 at 01:29:45 AM EST

These robots reproduce asexually, if you will. That cuts out all the social dynamics of reproduction experienced by humans, which revolves around competing for suitable partners. So their "reproductive urges" will certainly feel quite different to ours.

And yes, I know I'm posting way too late. Great story!
"Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
[ Parent ]
You misunderstand (none / 0) (#106)
by CodeWright on Tue Mar 25, 2003 at 10:04:51 AM EST

I didn't say the "fornicative urge", I said the "procreative urge". The urge to engender new living beings and guide their development -- not the urge to bump uglies and do the nasty.

"Humanity's combination of reckless stupidity and disrespect for the mistakes of others is, I think, what makes us great." --Parent ]
No you misunderstand (none / 0) (#109)
by p3d0 on Sat Apr 05, 2003 at 10:27:00 PM EST

Localroger started this line of discussion by stating the robots have "nothing like sexual desire", and if you want to talk instead about about "procreative urge", then you have changed topics, and you shouldn't accuse localroger of misunderstanding you just because he doesn't want to follow your tangent.
Patrick Doyle
My comments do not reflect the opinions of my employer.
[ Parent ]
Disagree (none / 0) (#107)
by p3d0 on Sat Apr 05, 2003 at 01:44:47 PM EST

You sound like Q in that Trek episode where he said "why not just change the gravitational constant of the universe". All the things you are suggesting require marshalling tremendous amounts of matter and energy. These ships just need some self-replication, some propulsion, and some computer intelligence.

You seem to think these ships are masters of all matter and energy, but all they really master is time.
Patrick Doyle
My comments do not reflect the opinions of my employer.
[ Parent ]

cosmic engineering (5.00 / 1) (#87)
by xah on Fri Dec 27, 2002 at 10:52:35 PM EST

I enjoyed the story very much.

Instead of all that dancing around looking for the right planetary system, however, it would be easier to go to one of those M-class stars, blow up the elliptically-orbiting gas giant into several fragments, reshape one of those fragments into a replacement Earth, use the rest for a Jupiter, move that into a Jupiter-type orbit, create a Mars, etc, etc. All you need is a lot of energy. Where do you get all that energy? Well, there's a sun right there in the same planetary system. If you can channel its energy in an efficient manner, you're home.

Probably would screw up the first couple of systems royally, but eventually we'd have a prowess in cosmic engineering that would let us do truly grand things.

Get a grip man (5.00 / 1) (#108)
by p3d0 on Sat Apr 05, 2003 at 09:30:49 PM EST

You think it would be easier to blow up a Jupiter-sized planet than to drift through empty space?
Patrick Doyle
My comments do not reflect the opinions of my employer.
[ Parent ]
Links to other fiction pieces? (3.00 / 2) (#88)
by ToastyKen on Sat Dec 28, 2002 at 07:48:37 AM EST

Maybe this is precisely why we need a fiction section, but I missed the other fiction pieces, and a quick browse through the archived headlines didn't really tell me which they are.  Would anyone be so kind as to give me links to them?  Thanks.

Click the "Fiction" link at the top (none / 0) (#119)
by vectro on Sun May 04, 2003 at 05:44:29 PM EST

Or see here.

“The problem with that definition is just that it's bullshit.” -- localroger
[ Parent ]
Flawed premise (none / 0) (#92)
by knobmaker on Sun Jan 05, 2003 at 11:54:28 PM EST

Excellent writing, but one premise is recently disproved.  I saw a wire service story just in the past day or two that stated planetary systems with earth-type planets are far more common than previously thought.  This was based on analysis of the nearby planetary systems that have been idenbtified so far.  1 in 4 systems, the authors of the referenced study said, contain earth-like planets, at least in terms of composition and distance from primary.  Out of the billions of systems in this galaxy, it seems extremely implausible that none contain habitable planets.  

This illustrates a major problem with writing far-future fiction.  It can't possibly be an accurate extrapolation, so there's no point in trying.  Best to accept that it's fantasy with rivets and go on from there.

From the viewpoint of effective fiction, this would have been an even better work had it not been pinned to some sort of future scientific history.  In other words, in my opinion the setting is too diffuse, and would have been better served by a more character oriented, here-and-now approach.  The idea of great intelligent exploration machines is not new, but there's still a lot of good stuff to be mined from the idea.

I guess my most critical criticism would be that good stories rarely start out with large indigestible lumps of exposition, however fascinating the exposition is to the author.

Saw that, and it's not what it is claimed (none / 0) (#93)
by localroger on Fri Jan 10, 2003 at 08:27:17 PM EST

I saw that and read it carefully. All it said was that 1 in 4 systems basically weren't eliminated from having Earthlike worlds by the tidal jostling of their Jovian constituents. Now that's not quite what the headlines said; what it really means is that only 1 in 4 of systems surveyed could possibly have Earthlike worlds. It doesn't address many of the other problems the Rare Earth theory throws at developing planets.

It does, however, guarantee at least that those 1/4 of surveyed systems would be clear of asteroid junk. It's a small nod in a positive direction, but not at all what the headlines claimed.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

starting trouble (none / 0) (#104)
by sanketh on Tue Feb 18, 2003 at 11:31:27 AM EST

i agree - there's too much background stuff in the beginning for a guy to get interested and imo, the reason the ending sounds so good is that the earlier part is comparitively dry, even something like arid. note that guys like frederick forsyth and tom clancy use such background stuff regularly but that's after they get to their characters. i dont know if one was supposed to sorta identify with the main character here but it sounded pretty much like the robo it was.

but the idea of the story is great. i liked it a lot, the ending obviously the best part. hope u write more of such stuff ....

i dont know if this post is way too late but ....

== Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us.
[ Parent ]

poignant (none / 0) (#95)
by ashwinm on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 07:36:17 AM EST

I liked the story , mainly for the last part : humans doubting that there once was a planet called earth. The machines go to all the trouble of keeping the memory of Earth alive in the new planet, and the humans wonder if they're being conned. It reminds me of one of Asimov's later foundation books (the 5th one, I think). I didn't particularly like that book, but what got me was the same idea - a man searching for the parent planet, and being told by people that he was chasing a chimera.

That's a standard hook used by SF writers (none / 0) (#101)
by the on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 05:58:29 PM EST

Drop hints about the existence of a fabled planet Earth. It even appears in Battlestar Galactica. Towards the end of volume N in your epic SF series you drop a hint that Earth will finally be rediscovered in volume N+1.

The Definite Article
[ Parent ]
Excellent[N/T] (none / 0) (#96)
by tonyenkiducx on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 09:09:12 AM EST

I see a planet where love is foremost, where war is none existant. A planet of peace, and a planet of understanding. I see a planet called
Awesome (none / 0) (#97)
by theNote on Tue Jan 28, 2003 at 10:07:43 AM EST

Great writing.
Also really enjoyed MOPI.
Do you make your living as a writer?
Do you have any more stories out there?

Aw, shucks (5.00 / 1) (#103)
by localroger on Fri Jan 31, 2003 at 11:38:09 PM EST

Great writing.
Also really enjoyed MOPI.


Do you make your living as a writer?

No, I do computers. Doesn't everyone here do computers for a living?

Do you have any more stories out there?

Not of this quality. But I've been feeling encouraged of late to write a few more.

I can haz blog!
[ Parent ]

Interesting story (none / 0) (#110)
by John Bayko on Tue Apr 15, 2003 at 05:10:10 PM EST

The first part reminds me of something I wrote, except the planet the single machine was still protecting had been reduced to rubble - it was protecting the remaining parts for some reason. The star had burned out as well.

Anyway, this is a pretty good story.

Antiques Roadshow (none / 0) (#121)
by EvilGwyn on Sun May 04, 2003 at 09:27:42 PM EST

I saw the most amazing thing on "Antiques Roadshow" the other day. This is a TV program where a bunch of incredibly clever historians and antiques experts and a bunch of regular people that have collected stuff get together and the historians figure out where the stuff came from and what it was worth.

At the end of the show a person was showing a rather unspectacular gold ring to an expert. He had found the ring buried under a hedge in his garden. He had been required by law to have an inquest held on the ring to determine its provenance and whether he was legally entitled to it.

The inquest determined that the ring was Anglo Saxon in origin and had, in all probability been lying in the humous since it was dropped by a Prince of some kind in the 8th or 9th century.

The ring had been lying in the ground for 1200 years and it looked like it had been made yesterday. The expert said that the age and sheer serendipity made it quite possibly the most remarkable thing he had ever seen on the show.

For some reason, the image of the robots sailing off towards the Andromeda galaxy reminded me of that.

Wohoo! (none / 0) (#123)
by Stavr0 on Mon May 05, 2003 at 04:14:00 PM EST

Part Two!
- - -
Pax Americana : Oderint Dum Metuant
great stuff!! :) (none / 0) (#124)
by andr0meda on Sat Jul 12, 2003 at 04:13:37 AM EST

Write a book! :)

Do not be afraid of the void my friend, is it not merely the logical next step?
Fiction: Passages in the Void | 124 comments (107 topical, 17 editorial, 0 hidden)
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