Saturday, April 17, 2010

Putting the Science Back in Science Fiction

By Don Luis de la Cosa (Guest Blogger)

From “Mission First”:

Once inside, there was a hurried, heady flurry of information suddenly streaming in from all sides, making my head spin more than it already was. Absorption rates, temperature readings, transcription and duplication, stability, and ‘hydrophobia’. That was going to require some explaining. Shyla was, in fact, the research doctor in charge of managing this entire affair, and I was only partly able to keep up as she pointed to jars of liquids that seemed to agitate themselves, colors and shadows mixing almost at will while other scientists observed, pipettes suctioned liquids and redistributed them, microscopes projected images on encased oversized plasma screens and analyses were made. At each work station, every pair of eagerly energetic hands, as well as their owner’s body, was encased in a uniform the same as ours. Had I not been an already recognizable visitor, I could have easily been lost in the buzzing hive of activity. One of the drones scurried over to the doctor and handed her a plastic clip board written on in wax pen.

When did you get these results, Ashton?”

An hour ago, ma’am.”

But, these can’t be accurate, it’s way too high!”

I ran it three times, because I knew you would say that. All three samples had the same levels.”

Impossible…” Shyla put her hand to her head and realized there was no way she’d be able to feel her fingernails against her skull through so much rubber, and then went back to looking at the board.

Might I inquire as to the nature of the issue?”

I wish I knew. This is a side project being developed for military application – better soldiers, faster reaction times, muscle regrowth, tissue regeneration, etc. We’ve been using the skin cell to stem cell production technique so we don’t have to wait on new lines to show up, and then injecting damaged areas with an admixture of pharmaceuticals: a few pain killers, some growth accelerants, binders, nothing extraordinary. Our test subjects are volunteers from the huge numbers of wounded that so recently got pulled out. Their regeneration and stabilization rates are generally in a recognizable sequence, and usually at a predictable rate that we’ve documented hundreds of times over. But we have one volunteer that is showing extremely abnormal rates of regeneration and even hypertrophy in some regions.”

Hypertrophy?”

Growth and increase in mass in areas otherwise unexpected.”

Then he would have an enormous schwanstucker!”

Hmmm?”

Nevermind.” Not a Mel Brooks fan. Oh well.

That whole scene erupted from an article I read about ‘hydrophobia’ in amino acids that describes its consequences, and what hydrophobic cells tell scientists. It just happened to show up on the Google front page one day when I opened up the browser. Of course, shortly after that entrance, both the reporter and the lead scientist descend into decidedly debaucherous derelictions of duty (or not, depending on how you look at it };)) but the importance of the entrance remains: there is an actual scientific concept and its attendant attitudes hidden in the suspense laden description. I’ve read gods know how many texts that work phenomenally well as completely unbridled flights of fancy, but the actual scientific concepts wouldn’t even fly inside of a Marvel Comics mag. So, what is it that makes William Gibson, Phillip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and yours truly (naturally) stand out from the crowd? It’s putting the science back in science fiction.

Consider, for a second, Bladerunner, the quintessential sci-fi film – androids, flying cars, extra-planetary, travel, synthetic creatures, language mixing… Now consider our current reality: the only one of those things we haven’t managed to make real progress on is the synthetic creatures bit, but only because cloning protocols have, up to now, produced individuals with respiratory systems so compromised that they don’t survive very long. Flying cars haven’t made it into mass production because, well, just imagine if the Big 3 produced them, and then found themselves again in such financial dire straits that they actually went out of business. Or the vehicles magically ended up with Toyota-like sudden acceleration syndrome. There are no anti-hyperactivity drugs for that. As one of my old roommates used to say: “that is not the way to happiness.” However, that doesn’t mean that people aren’t hard at work on the concept. After that, with Virgin Galactic’s first commercial extra-planetary aircraft, Richard Branson is set to start taking in incredible sums for the privilege of going for a spin.

Speaking of exo-planets, in a recent press release by cosmologists, it came to light that the number of stars catalogued could have been underestimated by as much as 90%. Meaning, up until just a few weeks ago, we believed there were only 10% of the stars in the universe than actually exist. Sort of eliminates the possibility of us being out here alone by sheer force of statistics, doesn’t it? Now, picture, if you will, the very first encounter between Europeans and indigenous folks on this side of the pond. Next, replace those indigenous populations with us, and the Europeans with some extra-galactic intelligence that just happens to pop in for a visit. And as a nation we can’t even agree on health care…

Speaking of health care, it used to be that the following was only conceivable within the construct of a Star Trek episode, but there are recent developments in machinery aiming at just this sort of thing in “Battery Drain”:

Back in my subterranean dungeon of drearitude, I ended up actually cracking their security server and found, after some topical searching, specs, inventory lists, combat applications, and deployments of their drones. I stored all that info and shut down my deck, rubbing my eyes from sheer force of habit until I realized, my eyes didn’t really hurt. Tomorrow, I’ll have to ask Doc for a list of my specs. Almost on cue, one of the nurses who I’d recognized for her taste in black brocade and satin knocked and infiltrated my space. A bit shorter and with more dangerous curves than Morgan, her loose auburn curls fell to the center of her back to complement the olive tones of her skin. Her name was Heathyr, and she rolled a tray full of items dedicated to doing analysis on each of the modifications, data grabbers, signal strength testers, and multi-scanners, right up next to my table.

I’ll start at the top. Doc wants to find out just how well everything went today.” She wore a jasmine and citrus mix perfume that tickled my brain, no doubt also dreamt up by those at the helm, and stood painfully close to my mostly naked skin, circling my head with something that clicked and beeped and shone lights against my skull. Strange symbols popped up on the mini screen as she pushed buttons on its side before she reached for something else the size of Doc’s palmtop. A purple beam shot out from a lens at the top and stretched the width of my body as she dragged the line from my shoulders along my torso to waist level. Her palmtop’s screen showed internal mappings of all the implants and everything to which they were attached, with notes in symbols I could neither read, nor understand upside down. More beeps and clicks.

A great many people ask why I write science fiction. To me it has always come naturally, perhaps because of my upbringing in a medical family, and my natural curiosity in all things. Though the current crop of scientists, researchers, and developers is making my job infinitely more difficult, because at the very point I invent something for a story, it’s generally already become reality within some wild schemer’s laboratory. Even the autonomous drones I used in the later pages of the book are already in current development and limited deployment with the Army, and that’s at once frightening and not at all unexpected.

So, how does one acquire all this information? Start by reading. Go purposefully into realms in which you’re uncomfortable, and discover interesting details about far away concepts that can help enrich the life of your mind. Then, follow the yellow brick road, from one concept, start to branch out into others, make connections, draw idea webs, add two plus four, debate the spiritual significance of a Fibonacci worm, scare yourself with how much you uncover, and then travel somewhere completely unfamiliar and discover some more. Challenge your beliefs, and above all, have fun! Lastly, if you’re looking for jumping off points, you could always start with my books

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1 comment:

Madeline Elayne said...

I love it when a science fiction story has good solid science behind its premises. On the other hand, when they go into "explanations" of occurrences where the science is flawed (or worse!) it totally ruins the story. So as an avid science fiction reader may I add to that advice by saying "Put science into science fiction and make me happy, but really, really, really get it right, please!"

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