Gods from Outer Space

Transcendent Outsiders, Alien Gods, and Aspiring Humans: Literary Fantasy and Science Fiction as Contemporary Theological Speculation by Ryan Calvey, discusses a range of such entities, and I wish to fill out his discussion further. His hierarchy is:

  • Transcendent outsiders: entities much more powerful than us.
  • Human beings.
  • Aspiring human beings: a huge collection of robots, software constructs, magically-animated toys, assembled organisms, and the like. They want to either become human or else to have the sort of respect that we give each other.

About the first one, RC distinguished between authoritarian and friendly ones, and I have expanded on his classification.

  • Authoritarian and Punitive: the movie The Day The Earth Stood Still
  • Friendly and Helpful: Carl Sagan’s book and movie Contact
  • Aloof: the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • Absent or Nonexistent: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series
  • Emergent: Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Last Question”

I’ll explain more about each of them after the fold.

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The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna

That is the title of one of Isaac Asimov’s science essays, collected in his book Is Anyone There?

“The Lovely Lost Landscapes of Luna” was published in 1966, but its overall conclusions are anything but out-of-date. IA grew up with early 20th cy. science fiction, and much of it featured lots of adventures on other Solar-System planets. I recall that someone once claimed that the first SF writer to break out of the Solar System was likely E.E. “Doc” Smith, with his Skylark of Space (1928).

A curious consequence of telescopic observations and acceptance of heliocentrism was the belief that all the Solar System’s planets were inhabited by sentient entities and whole biotas of organisms. In the eighteenth century, that was a very common belief, on the ground that God would not want to waste a world. But in the nineteenth century, some scientists started getting skeptical about that, and by the mid twentieth century, their skepticism had become mainstream. Most of the Solar System seemed very hostile to all but the hardiest microbes, and often to them also. Then spacecraft were sent out, and they returned an abundance of evidence of how hostile the Solar System is.

There was the possibility of planets of other stars, but that was not enough for Isaac Asimov, and he had grown up on the abundantly-inhabited Solar System of 1930’s science-fiction stories.

No, no, the stars are not enough. It’s the solar system we want, the solar system they took away from us thirty years ago.

The solar system we can never have again.

Though since then, hundreds of exoplanets have been discovered. As of 2017 October 5, NASA Exoplanet Archive lists 3529 confirmed planets of other stars, and some of these planets are almost Earthlike.

How it happened is below the fold.

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Star Trek TOS Female Uniforms

TOS is The Original Series, from way back when. I was provoked to think about it when I learned of what Melania Trump wore to Houston, Texas when she and her husband visited there after Hurricane Harvey struck that city. She wore high-heeled shoes with 4-in (10-cm) spike heels. FACT CHECK: Melania Trump Wore Heels to Texas After a Hurricane? has the story. She wore them while on the way to Air Force One, but she wore sneakers in Houston. Melania Trump sports heels for second Hurricane Harvey tour, here again, she wore high-heeled shoes only at the Washington DC end of her trip.

Such shoes are impractical for rough ground and natural-disaster areas, and that made me think about the female uniforms of Star Trek TOS. In its two pilot episodes, both sexes wore the same kind of uniform: colored shirts and black pants. But in the series proper, the Enterprise crewwomen wore colored minidresses, a.k.a. tunics or miniskirts.

These uniforms have provoked a lot of controversy, because they seem more suited for male titillation than anything else. But some of the wearers of these uniforms seemed to like them (Star Trek Miniskirts: Feminist or Nah? | Comparative Geeks, Star Trek’s Underappreciated Feminist History by Shannon Mizzi | The Wilson Quarterly). Miniskirts were a big fashion in the 1960’s, and many of their wearers considered them a sign of sexual liberation, liberation from having to be covered up and hidden away. However, that fashion did not last, and many women started wearing pants — and have continued wearing pants to the present day.

TOS’s minidresses were apparently the idea of Grace Lee Whitney, who played Janice Rand, the one with the basket-weave hairstyle. Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, also liked them. But after TOS, women’s uniforms all had pants until the Kelvin-Universe reboot, and that reboot was an exception because it is an alternate-universe version of TOS.

My objection to those minidresses is that they are totally unsuitable for any sort of work except the most physically light sorts of work, and I mean unsuitable in a practical sort of sense. It’s like Melania Trump’s high heels. The later ST iterations’ pants are much more suitable.

I must note something that got it right before Star Trek. In 1955, a certain George Adamski wrote Inside the Spaceships, a purportedly nonfictional work about his meetings with human(oid) inhabitants of other Solar-System planets, inhabitants who have a sort of United Federation of Planets. When he encounters two crewwomen aboard one of the titular spaceships, they are wearing long dresses with jeweled belts. But that is their off-duty clothing, because when on-duty, they wear jumpsuits just like their male counterparts.

The Star Trek Transporter: Too Easy?

The Transporter has been a fixture of the Star Trek universe since the first series in it, The Original Series (TOS) of 1966-69. It is a teleportation or matter-transmission device that can both transmit and receive without needing anything at the other end.

As he relates in his book The Trouble With Tribbles, author David Gerrold first saw Star Trek, he refused to believe that its Transporter was possible, because long-distance teleportation needs both a transmitter device and a receiver device. He later conceded that nobody really knows whether or not long-distance teleportation was feasible without a device at each end.

DG went on to write the eponymous ST:TOS episode for that book, an episode that featured cute fuzzy “tribbles” that multiply uncontrollably and make themselves a nuisance. He also went on to wrote The World of Star Trek, where he very strongly criticized several of TOS’s problems, including the Transporter.

It was added to the series because its special effects for it were much cheaper than the special effects for the alternatives. These were (1) an aircraft-carrier-sized interstellar spaceship landing and taking off, and (2) an RV-sized shuttlecraft departing from the spaceship, landing, taking off, and arriving again.

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Time-Period Punk Genres

The inspiration for them was cyberpunk, a genre about people who live on the borderline of reputable society but who use that society’s advanced technology: “High tech. Low life. ” What is Cyberpunk? | Neon Dystopia defines it:

Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that features advanced science and technology in an urban, dystopian future.  On one side you have powerful mega-corporations and private security forces, and on the other you have the dark and gritty underworld of illegal trade, gangs, drugs, and vice.  In between all of this is politics, corruption, and social upheaval.

Cyberpunk – Wikipedia quotes Lawrence Person’s definition:

Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.

It inspired steampunk, and that in turn inspired lots of other timepunks or periodpunks. These may be viewed as high-tech mundane fiction or hard science fiction set in the appropriate periods.

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Science Fiction: Hard to Soft

First. what is science fiction? This has been a contentious issue for nearly a century. Definitions of science fiction – Wikipedia lists numerous proposed definitions. science fiction – Wiktionary has a very simple one: “Fiction in which advanced technology or science is a key element.” In What Science-Fiction Magazines Look For | NexusZine I mentioned Analog magazine’s preferences: stories where future science and/or technology is an essential part. If it was absent, there would be no story. Nevertheless, science fiction is not just about technology. It’s also about what people do with it: Isaac Asimov on Science Fiction: the Reaction, not the Action | NexusZine. Like if self-driving cars became practical, what happens to manual driving? Isaac Asimov once wrote a story, “Sally”, in which it was outlawed as needlessly dangerous, a move that caused a lot of controversy.

Within science fiction itself, there are two axes that have been called hard to soft:

  1. Nuts-and-bolts to sociological
  2. Present-day technology to plausible future technology to implausible future technology to fantasy

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Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

In his youth, Isaac Asimov became annoyed by stories of robots that destroy their creators, with the implication that construction of such machines is something that we were not meant to do. So when he started writing stories about robots, he decided that they would need safety mechanisms that keep such things from happening. He eventually stated them as his Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

“Robot” here can be generalized to be any artificially-intelligent system: replace “robot” with “AI system”. In their explicit form, one will likely need strong AI to implement them, and present-day robots are far too dumb for that. They are mostly industrial mechanical arms and the like. There are also lots of ambiguities and loopholes in these laws, and IA himself had gotten lots of stories out of problems in applying them.

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