Tag Archives: science fiction

Solution unsatisfactory

In 1940, when the world war in Europe was mostly England versus Germany, the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein wrote a short story called Solution Unsatisfactory (published in 1941). Heinlein anticipated the development of nuclear weaponry, although in his version, the weapon took the form of a radioactive dust that could easily wipe out a whole city, instead of a bomb. In the story, the new superweapon raises the horrific possibility of mass annihilation. The main character, Colonel Clyde Manning, summarizes it this way:

Here is the probable future, as I see it, potential in the smashing of the atom …. Some power makes a supply of the dust. They’ll hit us first to try to knock us out … But our army … would have planes and a supply of dust somewhere where the first dusting wouldn’t touch them. Our boys would bravely and righteously proceed to poison their big cities. Back and forth it would go until the organization of each country had broken down so completely that they were no longer able to maintain a sufficiently high level of industrialization to service planes and manufacture dust. … The other nations would get in the game. It’s a vicious circle that cannot possibly be stopped until the entire planet has dropped to a level of economy too low to support the techniques necessary to maintain it. My best guess is that such a point would be reached when approximately three-quarters of the world’s population were dead of dust, disease, or hunger, and culture reduced to the peasant-and-village type.

After the dust has been used to force Germany to surrender, and after a brief nuclear war between the United States and the “Eurasian Union” (the Soviets), Manning takes the only way out of the trap. He uses the new weapon to establish a world-wide military dictatorship, with a monopoly of airpower and atomic weaponry, staffed by an international military force independent of any one nation under his personal command. The narrator concludes:

For myself, I can’t be happy in a world where any man or group of men, has the power of death over you and me, our neighbors, every human, every animal, every living thing. I don’t like anyone to have that kind of power. And neither does Manning

Curiously, Bertrand Russell, later famous as a better-Red-than-Dead disarmament campaigner, followed the same logic in The Atomic Bomb and the Prevention of War, published in 1946. In his view, the future might hold an atomic war in which “destruction will continue until disorganization makes the further manufacture of atomic bombs impossible.” But there was a more hopeful alternative:

It is entirely clear that there is only one way in which great wars can be permanently prevented, and that is the establishment of an international government with a monopoly of serious armed force. An international government, if it is to be able to preserve peace, must have the only atomic bombs, the only plant for producing them, the only air force, the only battleships … Its atomic staff, its air squadrons, the crews of its battleships, and its infantry regiments must … be composed of men of many different nations; there must be no possibility of the development of national feeling in any unit larger than a company.

Sometimes you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, or at least threatening to break them:

Stalin … will have to be persuaded … to permit the creation of an effective international government. … The only possible way … is by a mixture of cajolery and threat, making it plain to the Soviet authorities that refusal will entail disaster, while acceptance will not.

I don’t know that Russell was a science fiction fan. (He did write some science fiction stories, which are not any better than Heinlein’s stabs at philosophy.) His agreement with Heinlein is more likely a case of great minds thinking alike – and in this case a little too rationally – about human affairs.


The Alteration

A subgenre of science fiction is “alternative history.” What would the world be like if history had taken another path? If the Axis powers had won the Second World War (as in Phillip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, among many others)? If the South had won the American Civil War? If King Oswy of Northumbria had decided differently at the fateful Synod of Whitby? Or (going waaay back) if the Chicxulub asteroid had missed Earth, or the Cambrian had turned out differently?

Or suppose the Protestant Reformation had never happened? That’s the premise of several novels, including The Alteration by Kingsley Amis. Amis’s novel is set in an alternative 1976, in which Martin Luther long ago became Pope Germanicus, and the Catholic Church dominates most of the world, apart from the Turkish Empire, and some freethinkers in New England. The world is a dystopian theocracy, with a rigid caste system, where “science” is a dirty word. Amis has fun fitting characters from our own timeline into his alternative history. Himmler and Beria are Monsignors from Almaigne and Muscovy. Sartre is a renowned Jesuit theologian. Mozart lived a long life, and wrote a Second Requiem, in memory of a gifted composer, Beethoven, who died young .

The main figure in the novel is an English boy, Hubert Anvil. Hubert is a fan of banned underground science fiction books, like the alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle, by Phillip K. Dick, about an alternative world – not quite our own – in which the Protestant Reformation actually happened. In that alternative world within Hubert’s alternative world,

Invention has been set free a long time before. Sickness is almost conquered: nobody dies of consumption or the plague. … The inventors are actually called scientists, and they use electricity. … They send messages all over the Earth with it. They use it to light whole cities and even to keep folk warm. There are electric flying machines that move at two hundred miles an hour. [And] there’s a famous book which proves that mankind is descended from a thing like an ape, not from Adam and Eve.

But Hubert also has an angelic boy’s soprano voice, which he will lose in a few years at puberty, unless … Hence the sinister double meaning of the title, The Alteration.

Amis is both a very talented writer, and a science fiction fan, and the book is well worth reading. The latest edition has an introduction by science fiction writer William Gibson.

Our first beer, a toast

We tweeted about the first known alcoholic beverage, from China, on September 11. Today comes another landmark in the history of alcohol, with the first known evidence for beer brewing, from Iran (based on chemical tests of ancient pottery jars). You can find a popular discussion of beer archeology here.

It’s likely that alcohol production goes back earlier than either of these dates. It may even go back before the beginning of agriculture. It’s probably gone on long enough for populations with a long tradition of farming to acquire some genetic adaptations to the availability of alcohol.

People in traditional societies are not just concerned with subsistence – with earning their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. They often put a lot of work into non-subsistence production that raises their prestige. There’s a big literature in anthropology on “costly signaling” (related to conspicuous consumption; for example) concerned with this phenomenon. Archeologist Brian Hayden proposes that the origin of agriculture itself was motivated not so much by subsistence pressures, as by the desire to produce luxury foods for feasts. The potential for alcohol production in particular might have spurred the early domestication of grains.

In that convivial spirit, moving from the distant past to the far future – even to the end of the Universe – here is a toast to the brewmasters, from the last novel by science fiction writer Jack Vance:

The waiter departed to fill the orders. He presently returned with four tankards, deftly served them around the table, then withdrew.

Maloof took up his tankard. “For want of a better toast, I salute the ten thousand generations of brewmasters who, through their unflagging genius, have in effect made this moment possible!”

“A noble toast,” cried Wingo. “Allow me to add an epilogue. At the last moments of the universe, with eternal darkness converging from all sides, surely someone will arise and cry out: ‘Hold back the end for a final moment, while I pay tribute to the gallant brewmasters who have provided us a pathway of golden glory down the fading corridors of time!’ And then, is it not possible that a bright gap will appear in the dark, through which the brewmasters are allowed to proceed, to build a finer universe?”

“It is as reasonable as any other conjecture,” said Schwatzendale. “But now.” The four saluted each other, tilted their tankards, and drank deep draughts.

Jack Vance Lurulu p. 181

Talk like a post-human

A followup to Talk Like a Neanderthal Day

Thinking about how Neanderthals might have talked is one way to get at language evolution and how language works. Another way to do this is through science fiction. I’m not thinking so much of constructed languages like Quenya, Klingon, or Dothraki. There are whole communities of people out there – conlangers – busy inventing and learning such languages; some fun introductions are here and here. But mostly these languages are meant to fall within the range of variation of existing human languages. I’m thinking instead of some science fiction stories that imagine more radical alterations of language.

For example,

The Persistence of Vision. John Varley (1979)

A few decades into the future, the United States is falling apart. A drifter stumbles into a community of deaf-and-blind “Kellerites” who are doing pretty well for themselves in the New Mexico desert. They communicate partly by spelling out things in handtalk. “By handtalk I mean the International Manual Alphabet. Anyone can learn it in a few hours or days.” But Varley recognizes that handtalk is not a real language. For a real language the community uses shorthand. “Shorthand was not code for English or any other language; it did not share construction or vocabulary with any other language. … Each word was something I had to learn and memorize separately from the handtalk spelling.”

The Kellerites are fictional, but sign language is not. In Talking Hands, Margalit Fox (who also writes obituaries for the New York Times) writes about a Bedouin community in Israel with a high incidence of congenital deafness. Deaf kids there have spontaneously come up with their own sign language. This is a real language, not derived from Arabic or Hebrew, with “phonemes” that are combined to make signs that are more-or-less arbitrarily paired with meanings to yield words that can be combined into phrases and sentences according to rules of grammar. A nice detail: deaf babies exposed to sign language will start off “babbling” with their hands, just as hearing babies babble by making sounds. The human Language Acquisition Device (Chomsky’s phrase), an “instinct to acquire an art” (Darwin’s phrase), will work with whatever material it can get ahold of.

So Varley gets a lot right; I suspect he did some research on sign language for this story. If the deaf-and-blind ever did form their own community, and come up with their own language, it would be a full-blown language a lot like his shorthand.

On the other hand, this bit, with the Kellerites merging linguistic intercourse with the other kind of intercourse, is a little over the top:

But talk was talk, and if conversation evolved to the point where you needed to talk to another with your genitals, it was still a part of the conversation.

Or, as Eliza Doolittle said, “How kind of you to let me come.”

Gulf. Robert Heinlein (1949)

A tightly written spy tale, set a century or two in the future, where the United States went through World War III, went communist, and then got over it. It reads like a James Bond story as written by Francis Galton. The protagonist learns that there is a secret community of super-geniuses, who call themselves New Man (an allusion to real-life super-genius von Neumann? By the way, “Neander” also means “new man”). They work behind the scenes to keep humanity safe from itself. This sometimes involves some anti-fa vigilantism: “Two weeks from now there will be a giant pow-wow of the new, rejuvenated, bigger-and-better-than-ever Ku Klux Klan down Carolina way. When the fun is at its height, when they are mouthing obscenities, working each other up to the pogrom spirit, an act of God is going to wipe out the whole kit and caboodle. … Sad.”

And New Men have their own super-language, Speedtalk. Speedtalk violates one of the key design features of real languages, the duality of patterning. Real languages have one level of meaningless phonemes combined according to rules to make syllables (so spy fits the sound pattern of English, but psi – if you try to pronounce the p – does not). One or more syllables are then arbitrarily paired with meanings to make words, and then there is a second level where another set of rules determines what combinations of words make grammatical phrases. Even sign languages work this way.

But Speedtalk instead has just one level, pairing up individual phonemes with meanings. This is quite a stretch. In real languages, the inventory of words is orders of magnitudes greater than the inventory of phonemes. But Heinlein tells us that adding variations in length, stress, and pitch is enough “to establish a one-to-one relationship with Basic English [800+ words] so that one phonetic symbol was equivalent to an entire word in a ‘normal’ language, one Speedtalk word to an entire sentence.”

There’s more to Speedtalk than this. Heinlein was very taken with an intellectual fad of his time, General Semantics. General Semantics hovered somewhere between a serious intellectual endeavor and complete crackpottery. Firmly on the crackpot side of the line is Count Alfred Korzybski, who gets a chapter in a debunking book by Martin Gardner. Korzybski’s magnum opus Science and Sanity is all about how reforming language is the key to creating the first truly rational civilization. This means the verb “to be” has got to go. As Heinlein puts it. “One can think logically in English only by extreme effort, so bad is it as a mental tool. For example, the verb ‘to be’ in English has twenty-one distinct meanings, every one of which is false-to-fact.”

Entertaining, but silly. The score today is: “to be” 1, General Semantics 0. If you want some real semantics, Pinker beats Korzybski.

The Citadel of the Autarch. Gene Wolfe (1982)

This is Book Four of a tetralogy. Millions of years in the future, Earth has sunk to a medieval level, albeit littered with bits and pieces of advanced technology indistinguishable from magic. Wolfe really, really likes to have you figure things out, instead of telling you, but you can work out that the action takes place in South America. An endless war is going on against the Ascians, a totalitarian state to the north. An Ascian prisoner of war tells a story, constructed entirely of canned slogans, while another character, Folia, interprets.

It starts off like this

The Ascian began to speak: “In times past, loyalty to the cause of the populace was to be found everywhere. The will of the Group of Seventeen was the will of everyone.”

Folia interpreted: “Once upon a time …”

“Let no one be idle. If one is idle let him band together with others who are idle too, and let them look for idle land. Let everyone they meet direct them.  It is better to walk a thousand leagues than to sit in the House of Starvation.”

“There was a remote farm worked in partnership by people who were not related.”

“One is strong, another beautiful, a third a cunning artificer. Which is best? He who serves the populace.”

“On this farm there lived a good man.”

“Let the work be divided by a wise divider of work. Let the food be divided by a just divider of food. Let the pigs grow fat. Let the rats starve.”

“The others cheated him of his share.”

And so on.

Of course the story and its interpretation are fanciful. A functioning language has to be more than a collection of stock phrases. But the story illustrates something about the way real languages work. People don’t just communicate by encoding and decoding literal meanings, but by inferring one another’s communicative intentions, always thinking “I wonder what he meant by that.” There’s a whole branch of linguistics, linguistic pragmatics, that studies how this works. And pragmatic inference in language is just one instance of a special, powerful human aptitude for creating shared intentions. This aptitude means that there are always ways to subvert official speech, in any language, even Ascian or Newspeak. Or Korean: the news last year was that North Korea had banned sarcasm.

Officials told people that sarcastic expressions such as “This is all America’s fault” would constitute unacceptable criticism of the regime.

Note: Gene Wolfe is a combat veteran of the Korean War.

Speech sounds

562-532 thousand years ago

Below are some reflections on language. There will be plenty more in days to come. For a science-fictional take on language, try Octavia Butler’s account of a world where language has disappeared, Speech Sounds. It’s one of her best. It won science fiction’s Hugo Award for best short story in 1984.

We’re now six months through the year 2016 at Logarithmic History. We raced through time at the rate of 754 million years a day on January 1. December 31 we’ll cover just one year per day. Today, June 30, covers 30,714 years, from 562,439 to 5531,726 years ago.

By today’s date, the universe is a lot more complicated than when we started. As we mentioned before, one of the major sources of complexity is the origin of new discrete combinatorial systems, made of small units that can be combined into larger units that have different properties than their constituents. Elementary particles are the first discrete combinatorial system to appear, already present in the early moments of the Big Bang. The different chemical elements are another major discrete combinatorial system. It took billions of years for enough heavy atoms, beyond hydrogen and helium, to accumulate from stellar explosions, allowing the complex chemistry and geology that we know on Earth. It may be that the paucity of heavy elements in the early Universe is what prevented earlier planetary systems from developing complex life.

With the origin of life comes another discrete combinatorial systems, or rather two connected systems: nucleotides strung together to make genes, which code for amino acids strung together to make proteins.

For the second half of the Logarithmic History year, we’ll be spending a lot of time looking at the consequences of another discrete combinatorial system: language. Or maybe, as with genes-and-proteins there are really two systems here: words strung into phrases and sentences, and concepts strung together into complex propositions in a Language of Thought.

The origin of modern human is one of the major transitions in evolution, comparable to the origin of eukaryotic cells, or of social insects. Language is crucial here: ants organize high levels of cooperation by secreting pheromones. Humans organize by secreting cosmologies.

Your Cuisinart, a prehistory

A famous movie cut, from 2001: A Space Odyssey, transitions from a bone club, hurled aloft by an australopithecine 2.5 million years ago, to a spacecraft in the year 2001.


Arthur Clarke and Stanley Kubrick, coming up with the plot for the movie/book, were influenced by the popular author Robert Ardrey. In his book African Genesis, Ardrey casts human evolution as a version of the story of Cain and Abel, except in his version the peaceful vegetarians (robust australopithecines) get clobbered by the club-wielding meat-eaters (gracile australopithecines).

We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments?

Ardrey, along with Konrad Lorenz and Desmond Morris, was much in vogue in the 1960s: Sam Peckinpah was another movie director influenced by him. Unfortunately his speculations on evolution and human behavior are probably not of enduring value: he had the misfortune to take up the topic too early to take on board the sociobiological revolution pioneered by William Hamilton, Robert Trivers, and George Williams, and popularized by E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins.

Ardrey may not have been off-base in thinking that weaponry and warfare have been an important motive force in human biological and social evolution. But where early stone tools are concerned, a different segue, from Oldowan chopper to Cuisnart may be more appropriate.


Recent research argues that early hominins could have dramatically increased available food energy by pounding vegetables and chopping up meat into more digestible pieces. Tool use may have been an early step in our ancestors’ move to high energy diets. Meat-eating began to be important in human evolution around 2.6 million years ago. Somewhat later we see evidence that some hominins have lighter jaws and aren’t chewing as much. So to celebrate this early dietary revolution, here’s a recipe:

Steak Tartare

Place in a food processor fitted with the metal chopping blade:

1 ½ pounds lean beef (tenderloin, top round, or sirloin) cut into ½ inch cubes

Pulse until meat is coarsely ground, 7-10 seconds. Do not over-process. Remove meat to a chilled platter or individual plates and gently form into 6 individual mounds.

[Optional: Make a spoon shaped indentation on top of each mound and crack into each

1 egg yolk.]

Divide and arrange in small piles around each serving:

½ cup minced onions
½ cup minced shallots
½ cup minced fresh parsley
¼ cup minced drained capers
8-12 anchovies (optional)

Serve immediately and pass separately:

Fresh lemon juice
Worcestershire sauce
Dijon mustard
Hot pepper sauce
Freshly ground black pepper

From The Joy of Cooking 1997

Four legs good, three legs better

Having grasping hands (and having them coordinate with the eyes) is one of the important things that distinguishes primates from other mammals. And a special version of bipedalism, which allows hands to specialize for manipulation and feet for locomotion, is one of the first things that distinguishes hominins from other primates, even before hominin brains get big.

You find the same arrangement — a pair of arms with hands and a pair of legs with feet – with most science fiction aliens. (For TV and movie science fiction this just reflects the fact that aliens, pre-CGI, were mostly played by actors made up with pointy ears or fur suits or whatever.) But there are wilder possibilities, with no Earth analog. One of the most imaginative is the Pierson’s Puppeteers invented by Larry Niven:

“…. I was fed up with humanoids. Chad Oliver in particular, an anthropologist, wrote story after story claiming that this is the only workable shape for an intelligent being. The puppeteers were my first attempt to show him a shape that could evolve to intelligence. …”


The Puppeteers’ brains are safely tucked away inside their bodies, but they have two “necks” ending in “heads” each including one eye, one mouth, and a set of “fingers” around the lips. And the body has three legs. Decapitation is bad news for a Puppeteer,  like having a limb amputated, but not a death sentence.

Even more exotic are Vernor Vinge’s “Tines.” These are dog-like aliens who have evolved a short-range ultrasonic communication system that transmits information at such a high baud rate that a pack of half a dozen separate organisms is integrated into an enduring single individual with a shared consciousness. Losing one member of the pack is more like losing a limb, or having a stroke, than like the death of an individual. The mouths of the pack act together, as coordinated as the fingers on a hand, allowing the Tines to build up a medieval level civilization. (Vinge is a computer scientist, not an evolutionary biologist, however, and he glosses over some potential problems in Tine sociobiology: “all for one and one for all” is all very well, but which member of the pack actually gets to pass on their genes when it’s time to mate?)

But we don’t have to travel to other planets to find alternatives to two hands / two feet. Elephant trunks, for example, let elephants browse while avoiding the need for a giraffe/diplodocus-style long neck. The trunks even have “fingers” (2 for African elephants, 1 for Asian elephants) that are sensitive enough to pick up a single piece of straw.

We’ll spend a lot of time on Logarithmic History asking how human beings got to be such an extraordinary species. Hands are an important part of the story, although the elephant case suggests that hands (or their near-equivalent) are merely unusual, not absolutely unique to humans and near relations.