The better faster than light travel works, the less you can do with it in fiction. Want to rescue a spaceship falling into a star or a planet’s atmosphere? If you’ve got amazing FTL that can pop you over, then pop you and the other ship right back over, there’s no tension. If your FTL has perfect accuracy over incredible distances, just strap it to some missiles, win every battle before it begins. If it can take you anywhere in the universe without fail, what are the chances of getting stranded in deep space?
Methods of travel shape the story around them. This isn’t particularly revelatory. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Snakes on A Plane, and countless other works of fiction all trap characters in a small enclosed traveling vehicle to help establish suspension of disbelief for fantastic plots (a variant of the locked room mystery). Many other stories force characters to race against the clock, making the method of transportation absolutely central to the story. Countless other examples present themselves. Faster than light travel, though, is particularly interesting. It’s quite simple to make it resemble any other type of transportation already existing in stories. Timothy Zahn’s Night Train to Rigel series even manages to replicate trains in space. FTL is also just much cooler than other forms of transit.
Last week was a bit Star Trek themed for me- caught the new Star Trek film and read a book on the economics of Star Trek. Seems like pretty good material for a double header review, so without further ado…
Trekonomics- The Economics of Star Trek, by Manu Saadia
The last few economics texts I’ve read have been fairly high level- Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century and the like- so I may have gone into this one expecting something a bit more challenging than it actually was. Trekonomics read something like a crossbreed of sophmore level economics and science fiction critical theory- not a bad thing at all, just not what I was expecting. Overall, it was a quick and interesting read, but not hugely novel- except for the conclusion. Saadia’s conclusion actively encouraged the development of a Trek-like post scarcity economy, sans the space travel. In fact, he quite pointedly came out and described space travel as a distraction and a monetary sinkhole, as well as a moral surrender to the problems we face on Earth. A wee bit bizarre.
Star Trek Beyond
Holy. Freaking. Crap.
I’ve got to give it another watch to be sure, but this might be one of my absolute favorite Trek movies. I’d seriously put it at #4. (My #1 is The Undiscovered Country, followed by Wrath of Khan and First Contact.) I was in no means expecting to love it this much.
I enjoyed the J.J. Abrams Treks, but I didn’t love them- they just didn’t FEEL like Star Trek. Some indefinable ingredient was missing- plus, Abrams is pretty bleh at understanding how big space is. Star Trek Beyond captures that ingredient again- I felt that glee that little kid me once had during every episode and movie of Star Trek again, and damn did it feel good. It also brought back some of the fundamental cheesiness of the franchise- the last two movies just tried way to hard for seriousness, and that’s no fun.
Not to mention that the movie itself was absolutely gorgeous- all the new Trek films have been, but this takes it to an entirely new level. The fight scenes were astonishingly kinetic, the scenery was epic in scale, and Yorktown- don’t even get me started on Yorktown. So cool.
A computer program has passed the Turing Test for the first time. What does this actually mean? Well, honestly, not much. This is a chatbot, not an AI. It’s not programmed to be intelligent, it is programmed to mimic written conversation. This one also used the whole gimmick of having the chatbot pretend to be a adolescent Ukrainian boy. The short and medium term results I predict? Over the next couple of years, we’ll get more annoying, harder to immediately detect spambots, (Like the ones on dating and porn sites, or the ones that are used to chat with you through your friends’ hacked Facebook accounts). 5-15 years? We’ll be getting adaptive conversational chatbots in videogames, which will be pretty sweet.
Anyhow, this brings me to the whole theme for my first official installment of Plot Devices: Artificial Intelligences. I’m going to attempt (key word) to explain ways that authors fit Artificial Intelligences into fiction, how it affects their settings, and ways to restrict them narrative-wise. This is a huge category, so we’re going to have to break it down a bit. I’m going to rip a few arbitrary categories out of fiction, here. In ascending order, Synthetic Intelligences, Human-Level AI, Uploads, Supergenius AI, and Weakly Godlike Intelligences. There are plenty that don’t fit precisely into any of these categories, but these five cover most examples of fictional AI.