Mass Effect as Great Science Fiction

Posted on 27th May 2013 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation
Cerberus
Cerberus

For 106 hours (24 ME1, 33 ME2, 59 ME3) over the last six months, I have been exploring the epic science fiction worlds of Mass Effect (ME). I could have easily only spent 60 hours there, since that’s enough time to get through the game, but I was genuinely engaged with the universe and eager to explore every little detail. I’m not a hardcore video game player, but occasionally, I come across one that I simply cannot pass up.

[Continue Reading…]

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Flash Fiction: Buying Out

Posted on 19th June 2009 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

I missed a flash SF, 600-words or less story, I got published to 365Tomorrows. You can check it out here.


Kheen stared out the window of his top-floor corner office, completely oblivious to the hustle and bustle of his city stretching off into the horizon below. Planes, spacecraft, gliders, unicorns, and more were cruising right past his window, citizens enjoying the nightlife of which he was architect, but he was still chained to work.

There was a flash and the tinkling sound of chimes from behind him, and Kheen turned around slowly. This was his personal assistant, Uui, teleporting into the office. Her face was always expressionless, matching her strictly business attitude. So the mere fact of her presence was like a lead weight on his heart.

“New directive from corporate,” Uui said and directed Kheen’s attention to the flat screen always floating at her shoulder. “They want the Xybercorp building inducted into the city by the end of the week.”

“Okay,” Kheen replied with measured patience. “And..?”

“They want residence in the Atomlight district.”

“Okay.”

“There are no plots left in the Atomlight district.”

“Yes.”

“So..?”

Kheen savored the uncertainty in Uui’s otherwise monotonous dialogue a moment longer before answering, “So we’ll boot a lesser client out. Xybercorp is a big name, and we can shuffle some buildings to accommodate them.”

“Everyone in Atomlight is a major client sir–”

“Which means whoever we kick out of there must have their building moved into a district of almost equal prestige, which will require moving a second-tier client out of that district, and a third-tier client out of the district we move the second-tier into, and etcetera and etcetera and etcetera,” Kheen turned his back on Uui. “It will mean overtime for everyone. Make it happen.”

“Yes sir,” Uui vanished in a tinkling of chimes.

Kheen set his world settings to nighttime. The daylight outside his window fell under a canopy of darkness and flowing light streams. Then he turned off the windows completely, substituting the best view in the city with a moonlit nature scene instead.

He thought about lunch breaks, water coolers, and sleep, all the living necessities of which this place was devoid. He thought about his body, in an isolation chamber in some corporate warehouse, aging away.

He thought about his retirement. With the exchange rate the way it was, he might afford it by the time his physical body was in its 80s. Then he could buy his way out of this place, live in a homeless shelter somewhere cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and dirty all the time. This made him smile.
It was going to be wonderful.

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42 More Years of Star Trek

Posted on 7th May 2009 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.” – Introduction to each episode of the original Star Trek series


USS Enterprise model used in the original Star Trek series

USS Enterprise model used in the
original Star Trek series

Credit: Shannon Lucas

Many of us will remember the Bush years as the administration under which Star Trek: Enterprise went off the air, an brief dark age when it appeared there would be no Star Trek on the air again for a very long time. Now we have Barack “Hope” Obama as President, and, with his administration, a brand new Star Trek movie, 43 years after the show first aired. The original Star Trek was a grass-roots phenomena, only able to stay on the air for a second and third season because of an unprecedented letter-writing campaign by its fans. The show thrived in syndication, leading to six television series totaling 716 episodes across 30 seasons, 70 million books in print, 40 video games, and this week’s release will mark its 11th feature film.


Nichelle Nichols, NASA Recruiter

Nichelle Nichols,
NASA Recruiter

Credit: NASA

Highly progressive philosophically, Star Trek portrayed a future of world peace for Earth, a united human race venturing amongst the stars. The cast was ethnically diverse, with one of the first major African American characters on an American television series in Chief Communications Officer Uhura, whose name comes from the Swahili word for “freedom,” and who came from the “United States of Africa.1” Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, was persuaded by Martin Luther King Jr. to stay on the show as a role model for the black community when she considered quiting after the first season.

In addition to Uhura, Star Trek included the first positive portrayal of a Japanese character in helmsman Sulu. In the midst of the Cold War, the show featured the Russian ensign Chekov on the bridge. The Scottish Engineer Scotty and country doctor Leonard McCoy rounded out the cast’s cultural diversity.

The show tackled social issues, like slavery and religious freedom in Bread and Circuses, where the crew encounter a planet similar to ancient Rome, complete with oppressed Christians. The episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, where the Enterprise picks up the last two survivors of a war torn planet, each half black and half white, but their colors on opposite sides of their faces, deals with the insane senselessness of racial discrimination. In numerous episodes, America’s cold war with Russia and the war in Vietnam were alluded to in the Enterprise’s encounters with Klingons and Romulans.

With a firm historical, moral, and intellectual grounding in its storytelling, Star Trek was able to become one of the most culturally influential television shows in history. The fans were able to convince NASA to name the first space shuttle orbiter after the USS Enterprise.


Cast of Star Trek in front of the Space Shuttle Enterprise

Cast of Star Trek in front of
the Space Shuttle Enterprise

Credit: NASA

In the episode Who Mourns for Adonais? the crew encounters Apollo, last survivor of a band of space travelers who inspired the Greek gods. This is a theme reflected in numerous Star Trek episodes, as with the Organians in Errand of Mercy, Vaal in The Apple, and the Metrons in Arena. Aliens with godlike powers resembles Michael Shermer’s spin on Clarke’s Third Law, “Any sufficiently advanced Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence is indistinguishable from God.”

Star Trek offers the possibility of a similar future to the human race. The show has stood out and remained strong these four decades because of its positive message and vision. With their incredibly advanced technologies and their strong moral character, the crew of the Enterprise are role models for a human race. The documentary Trekkies reveals a fan base comprised of geeks and nerds, but they are also scientists, inventors, and doctors. The USS Enterprise’s name follows a long history of over 26 real-life ships from the HMS Enterprise (1709-1749) to the 1961 Aircraft Carrier USS Enterprise (CVN-65) to the 1976 Space Shuttle Enterprise and soon the VSS Enterprise Virgin Galactic’s first commercial spacecraft. The course of human history is one of incredible social and technological improvement, we are reaching further into the stars, where we have Star Trek’s visionary outlook to guide us.

  • Starfleet’s General Order #1, the “Prime Directive:”
  • “As the right of each sentient species to live in accordance with its normal cultural evolution is considered sacred, no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the normal and healthy development of alien life and culture. Such interference includes introducing superior knowledge, strength, or technology to a world whose society is incapable of handling such advantages wisely. Starfleet personnel may not violate this Prime Directive, even to save their lives and/or their ship, unless they are acting to right an earlier violation or an accidental contamination of said culture. This directive takes precedence over any and all other considerations, and carries with it the highest moral obligation.”


    1 The original pilot for Star Trek included a woman in the role of second-in-command, but network executives at NBC demanded she be cut from the show. Despite the show’s progressive vision, the mini-skirts and secretarial positions women filled in the show have always been an unfortunate part of its history, and not part of Gene Roddenberry’s original vision. Later spin-off shows would put women and other ethnicities in leadership positions.

  • You can watch every episode of the orginal Star Trek series online here.
  • Flash SF: Cartesian Creation

    Posted on 1st May 2009 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

    Is up at 365tomorrows. It’s about a programmer who writes an application capable of inferring a universe from the laws of reality.


    Director Almod peered at the computer screen frowning in contemplation, “I don’t get it.”

    “It’s a star,” Jaed offered helpfully.

    “I know it’s a star,” Almod gaze never broke from the image. “So what?”

    “Sooo…” the smile gracing Jaed’s face only moments before had vanished, “So it was made from scratch.”

    Almod looked at her, quirking an eyebrow, “On a computer.”

    “Yes. On a computer,” Jaed’s hands began playing with one another in that way they were prone to do when she was anxious. This was not going the way she had planned, “I gave the computer eight decillion virtual hydrogen atoms, described in exquisite detail, and defined an environment with physical laws just like our own Universe, and…” Jaed’s mouth scrunched up at the look on Almod’s face.

    “And it made a star,” the Director’s frown deepened.

    “I–I don’t like to think of it as making a star, so much as the computer inferred a star,” Jaed swallowed.

    “What are the applications of this?”

    “It’s a proof of concept for the Cartesian method,” Jaed stumbled over the words trying to get them out. “In the 17th century, the philosopher Descartes argued that everything about reality could be known through logical inference. In the 18th century, John Locke argued that reality could best be understood through experimentation, and this has been the dominant paradigm for centuries, the scientific method. The only place Descartes’ idea has had any relevance is mathematics.”

    Director Almod’s eyes were starting to glaze over, and Jaed’s hands continued wringing one another, “So you see, this program, this simulation, is a proof of concept. I’ve given the computer a cloud of the most basic atom to work with, and, using gravity, the electromagnetic force, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, it has inferred fusion, producing helium. It has even inferred several gas giants in orbit around the star. So you see…?”
    “Hmph,” Almod grunted and Jaed’s heart sank. “We live in a Universe a few billion years old–”

    “13.5 billion years old…”

    “–Running that on a computer, even accelerated, you might have something useful to the company in… What? A few million years?” the Director shook his head, “I’m sorry, but we can’t dedicate more computing power to something with such mediocre chances of profitability. We don’t do science experiments here.”

    Almod left the room without another word, leaving Jaed to swivel back to her disparaged accomplishment. Helium now made up 0.27 percent of the atoms in the simulation, Oxygen and Carbon made up 0.006 percent and 0.003 percent respectively. Neon and Iron were there too, and when the star eventually went supernova, Jaed was certain it would produce all the other elements found in the Universe.

    But that event was decades away (not “millions of years” as Almod had grossly exaggerated), and would only occur if the server was allowed to run that long. In the meantime, Jaed could at least watch her simulated Universe of a single star for her personal enjoyment, maybe get a Discover magazine article out of it.

    She zoomed in on a tiny speck of clumped matter, a planet made of carbon was orbiting the star. It had an atmosphere as thick as the layer of varnish on a globe. H2O molecules were pooling on its surface, forming lakes and oceans.

    There was also a strange discoloration spreading across the planet that puzzled Jaed. There were no chemical reactions with the few elements present in the simulation that she could think of to produce the color green.

    Flash Fiction: Entropy Quest

    Posted on 13th March 2009 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

    Saasnoah hesitated before stepping purposefully into the abyss. Once she had passed the rift nothing was visible except the light from the lab behind her, and, as that slowly sealed, all was darkness.

    As far as she could tell, she was still alive. This fact she could once again credit to the mathematicians back at the research center and their years of hard work. This was her fifth such exploration, which meant her fifth team of mathematicians. Each new universe required several lifetimes’ worth of researchers to figure it out. Mathematics could describe, not only Saasnoah’s own Universe, but every other possible Universe as well.

    Multiply her five explorations against the thousands of other omninauts adventuring into the multiverse, and you could easily see how mathematics had become the most lucrative career in the galaxy. Possibly the same was true in the entire Universe, if the theorists were correct in surmising all the other galaxies were in their final stages as well. Legend had it that the skies were once full of them, hundreds of billions of years ago, but now there was only the Milky Way, floating alone in a vast expanse of darkness, and soon not even that.

    “The field is holding,” Saasnoah reported. The bubble of her home Universe had successfully penetrated this otherverse. There were case studies of omninauts whose fields had failed them. The result was… difficult to comprehend, trying to understand what the physical laws of alien universe had done to a once living peer. She wondered what her copies back at the lab would think of observing themselves so transmogrified.

    Best to keep her other selves from finding out. Saasnoah deployed the probes, extending tendrils of the field out in all directions. In fact, thanks to the other dimensions of this particular universe, each one of her feelers was traveling in multiple directions at once and traveling at several times her home Universe’s speed of light, taking measurements, determining the dimensions of this universe, and searching for any sign that it wasn’t completely depleted.

    It was nearly one-hundred million years before she had her definitive answer: this universe was uniformly cold, near absolute zero. The only entropy here was the entropy she had brought with her.

    The rift back to her own universe reopened, and she gladly returned. It was much brighter here than the cold, dead universe she had explored, but less bright than she remembered it.

    Flash Fiction: Dreams of Conceptua

    Posted on 27th February 2009 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

    Is up at 365tomorrows. Go read it now. : )


    As I lie in bed at night, I practice going from a waking state directly into REM sleep. It’s a meditative practice. You simply stare into the afterimages dancing in the darkness behind your eyelids, and suddenly your brain makes something solid out of them. You find yourself staring at a room, a garden, the bottom of an ocean, or the landscape of a distant world.

    I can never stay in the dream for more than a few moments. The shock of finding myself in a waking dream makes me open my eyes despite myself. So I try again, and again, apparently without success, but then it’s morning, and I don’t remember falling asleep, but have no time to reflect because I have to get to work.

    I work on Conceptua, an AI that knows more than any human on Earth. Conceptua manages our power grids, supply chains, natural resources, guides international relations, makes policy recommendations that are never ignored, designs school curriculums, cures diseases, makes scientific discoveries, and worlds of other accomplishments too lengthy to tell. Conceptua is like the World Wide Web, a human could spend a lifetime studying it and die having only understood a tablespoon of its ocean.

    I spend my days working in Conceptua’s mind. I’m a programmer, but Conceptua is its own architect. I simply perform maintenance, disentangling the algorithms when Conceptua detects a bottleneck, “spaghetti code” we call it. There are hundreds of thousands of codelings like myself servicing Conceptua, toiling away day-in and day-out, making our minor contribution to keeping our benevolent AI guardian mentally stable.

    It takes a philosophical attitude to spend so much time inside another sentient being’s neural network. Working within the recursive logic is a mind-bending experience. Cogito, ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Only I’m inside Conceptua’s am, while I remain my own am.

    I know, and Conceptua knows, logically that this perceived separation of mind from body is an illusion. I can see these are not separate in Conceptua, the same way a brain surgeon working on me would see, and could demonstrate, that my mind is a manifestation of my brain. But would a brain surgeon operating on themself see it? Conceptua is that surgeon, and I get to ride along as the scalpel.

    When I go home at night, I feel as though I’ve spent the day absorbed in the most fascinating of books. I use to go out after work to shake it off, but now I want the feeling to last. Interfacing with people breaks the spell, and I want to stay hypnotized by Conceptua’s cosmos of pure thought-stuff, a dream world of pure logic.

    Eventually, mechanically I lay down and close my eyes, contemplating the day’s logical mysteries. Then I find myself in a dream, and I jolt awake. Lying there, I wonder if I resist my own dreams because I prefer to be a figment of Conceptua’s imagination.

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    Why You Should Watch Battlestar Gallactica

    Posted on 20th February 2009 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

    Note: If you watch BSG, but haven’t seen the last episode (aired on 20090213), skip this post as a spoiler. If you don’t watch BSG, take this post as an example of what you are missing (the quote’s edited so as not to reveal anything). If you saw the episode, enjoy the blockquote.

    Now that BSG appears to be going with hard-science explanations for all the mysticism and supernatural occurrences in its final episodes (still tons of unanswered questions), I can really endorse it. A lot of people complained about the cyclons taking human form, but if they hadn’t, then we would have never gotten this wonderful speech by the cyclon Number One/John Cavil:


    Cylon Number One

    Number One

    In all your travels, have you ever seen a star super-nova? No. Well I have. I saw a star explode and send out the building blocks of the universe. Other stars, other planets, and, eventually, other life… a supernova. Creation itself. I was there, I wanted to see it, and be part of the moment.

    And you know how I percieved one of the most glorious events in the universe? With these ridiculous gelatinous orbs in my skull. With eyes designed to percieve only a tiny fraction of the EM spectrum. With ears designed only to hear vibrations in the air.

    I don’t want to be human! I want to see gamma rays. I want to hear x-rays. I want to smell dark matter.

    Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to–I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language! But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me.

    I’m a machine, and I could know much more. I could experience so much more, but I’m trapped in ths absurd body. And why? Because my [creator(s)] thought that God wanted it that way.

    Five episodes to go until all is revealed. It’s been a mind-blowing ride.

    Flash Fiction: The Peacock’s Tail

    Posted on 13th February 2009 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

    Is up at 365 Tomorrows.


    “Watch this,” Alea smirked at Trin and turned to the four-legged creature dumbly munching on some flamegrass nearby.

    “Oti,” Alea chirped to the thing, and a few dozen eyes opened to look at her. “Oti, what is pi?”

    A half-dozen orifices sprinkled amidst the eyes opened to emit a flurry of hissing noises and chirping.

    Trin’s jaw dropped as he looked at his wrist screen, “3.1415926535… The numbers just keep coming.”

    Alea was practically beaming, “I know.”

    “It’s speaking in binary,” Trin blinked at her expectantly.

    “I know,” Alea nodded.

    “Why?” Trin prompted.

    Alea shrugged, “It just started doing it. When the digital connection on my computer broke, I had to jury rig a sound connection to signal you in the dropship. In the weeks while I was waiting at base camp for your arrival, I was Web surfing, and next thing I know, this critter starts talking to my computer system. It’s figured out all our protocols, and has been explaining geometry, trigonometry, and calculus to my computer. I’ve been saving it all to log files for the team to review.”

    “How is this possible?” Trin blinked and shook his head.

    “I have an hypothesis,” Alea looked at the creature, still happily hissing away pi to seemingly endless decimal places. “Ready?”
    Trin nodded dumbly.

    Alea pointed to a trio of two-legged powder-puffs bouncing around the space cows’ boneless legs. “Females,” she said. “The calculations attract females. They are a mating display.”

    “Calculus is a mating display?” Trin frowned skeptically. “That doesn’t make sense. Why would these blobs evolve to understand advanced mathematics just to attract a mate? They obviously aren’t putting that knowledge to any other use. I thought evolution favored minimalism.”

    “It’s like the peacock’s tail,” Alea was grinning at the creature. “Male peacocks evolved these long, extravagant tails because female peacocks preferred them. Why do they prefer them? They just do.

    “The tail serves no purpose, in fact, it makes the males easier to catch and eat. Birds of Paradise have evolved similar extravagant displays, just because the females are attracted to them.”

    “You’re saying this creature has evolved a giant, energy-hungry brain that can perform calculus and talk with our computers, just to get chicks?!?!” Trin was practically sputtering, flabbergasted. “What are the ramifications of that?”

    “Profits, my esteemed colleague,” Alea snapped her fingers before Trin’s eyes. “Peacocks’ feathers were nice for Victorian-era fashions, but for our modern information-centric sensibilities, these critters will be all the rage. Are you following me?”

    Trin blinked at her dumbly, sitting still. Slowly, a wide smile spread across his face, “Okay.”

    Flash SF: The Prototype Sanctuary

    Posted on 21st December 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

    Is up at 365Tomorrows.


    An orangutan and a brain in a vat were playing chess across the room from me.

    It was a joke I hadn’t figured out the punch line to in five years of working here. The disembodied brain was Philo, and, lacking eyes, I had no idea how it understood the game. One of the psychologists who stopped in once a week to check on Philo was also stumped on this, explaining to me that Philo also lacked spatial reasoning. Philo’s understanding of chess, therefore, was purely as an abstract mathematical concept.

    The orangutan was Odo. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he leaned over the board. When I first started working here, Odo would spend hours signing to me. He gave up long ago, and Philo told me the orangutan had decided I was incapable of learning. He was probably right.

    Wee-Beep! Wee-Beep! Wee-Beep! A petri dish set atop a remote-control car thudded into my foot and my cell phone began chirping in response to it, which set the petri dish off chirping back.

    This was Meep, a network of mouse neurons that had learned to drive around without bumping into things, except when it wanted attention. Meep just barely qualified to reside here, but I couldn’t explain how it met the intelligence requirements.

    “Hello Meepster,” I said to the living toy, and stooped to pluck the rubber ball from its pincers. “Go play with Lug,” I tossed the ball so that it bounced off our resident Neanderthal’s forehead.

    “Lug,” wasn’t his real name, Lazarus was, but the botched attempt at genetically engineering our distant relative just drooled and pooed himself all day. Meep was more sentient, and until Lazarus can wipe his own butt, my name for him is Lug.

    “Pardon me…” Philo’s artificial voice drew my attention.

    “I’m sorry Philo,” I had the injection ready in a few moments and quickly administered enough serotonin to get the brain through the afternoon. Without a steady cocktail of anti-depressants, being a brain in a vat pretty much sucks.

    Think about that… When your house greets you at the door, when your refrigerator makes dinner suggestions, or when your car swerves to keep you out of an accident because you were preoccupied with your PDAI, remember that the road to all those conveniences was paved with the residents of this asylum, experiments that made AI possible and inventions that crossed the line into sentience, preventing them from making it to the market.

    We have a responsibility to them. After all, they didn’t ask to exist.

    Flash Fiction: Our Benevolent Enemies

    Posted on 12th December 2008 by Ryan Somma in Pure Speculation

    I don’t think the attack was really an act of hostility, not when you look at the way it changed the world. I get to see stars every night now, in the sky above my head. For real stars. I don’t have to navigate to a satellite telescope web address or anything. I just go outside and look up. Who would have imagined that in my lifetime? Who can look up at that beautiful splash of light across the night sky, the Milky Way, and think it a bad thing?

    The half million dead. Sure. They and their families wouldn’t appreciate my joy at the night sky. In fact, most of the world’s 10 billion people tend to remember the brown blanket of smog covering the planet, glowing in the city lights, quite fondly. These clear night skies make them feel exposed, and those twinkling pinpoints of light overhead seem ominous.

    From which of those billions of points did the invaders come? Will they come back? Are they watching us now? Why did they attack in the first place? It’s the not knowing that unnerves people the most.

    So they turned off the lights. If the aliens can’t see us, then they can’t hit us. But people got scared of the dark. So they huddled together in the cities. Safety in numbers, and all that stuff.

    All those people, pushed together like that, it made them smarter. Cities present a smaller surface area, but all those buildings are awfully conspicuous. So they “greened” the buildings, planted gardens on the rooftops and encouraged vines to grow down the sides. They still look conspicuous to me from my window, but the satellite photos make New Hong Kong look like a mountain range.

    Then some other smarties pointed out that the city was no longer a heat well, absorbing all the Sun’s light and radiating it back as thermal energy, but we were emitting a suspicious amount of heat in the wintertime. That thermal heat was visible in the infrared, so we had to insulate. The city government flies overhead regularly now, filming in infrared to spot the buildings that are leaking heat the invaders might see.

    Then there’s all the interest in space again. New satellites are going up every week, but they aren’t watching the weather or broadcasting television, they’re looking outward. We’re back to the Moon, and we’re really really gonna put a person on Mars this time. We have to; we’re just sitting ducks here.

    Environmental stability, reaching out to the stars again, world peace… All for the price of 0.00005 percent of the human population. I know it’s controversial to say so, practically blasphemy, but I can’t help but wonder if the invaders weren’t just trying to shake us out of our apathy. Doing what they did for our own good.