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Science Fiction. Not so easy to write.

Brett Holverstott

Having written a nonfiction book on science, I would love to write a science fiction novel. However, making the leap from nonfiction to fiction is not easy.

In fact, my wife has had to endure an endless series of hair-brained concepts for science fiction novels, such as an alien signal from space that uploads itself and becomes a sentient awareness on the internet. Good pulp material for future B-movies.

Despite my ability to create elaborately compelling settings, I can no longer count the number of times I have been horror stricken at the questions: So what is the plot? Who are the characters?

So, after years of this, my thoughts continue to drift across the sea of possibilities, and I like to think that I have made some kind of progress.

My current going plot involves an interstellar mission in which the main character suffers some kind of memory loss during hibernation. This concept - at the outset - is similar to that of one of my favorite science fiction novels, Fiasco, by Stanislaw Lem.

When the crew wakes up to discover they have arrived at a body covered in Earth-life (perhaps seeded by an ancient intelligence, two million years prior) the main character explores the world and its uniquely adapted ecosystems with a kind of immersive detachment. Unlike the others, he is able to accept the world as it is, even while it triggers memories of the world he left behind.

Like a good Lem novel, I intend the book to be light on plot; allowing the reader to wander the pathways of the character's experience, memory, and internal dialogue; and to come away with an intimate awareness of a world both alien and familiar.

As I've described this, it feels very much like a book I want to write, a book that I would write. But it began as something that was trying to be both super-realistic ("hard") sci-fi, and the kind of space fantasy we would expect from Star Wars.

I mean, what better way to create a galaxy populated with human (or human-like) beings than if an ancient intelligence seeded Earth life, and even hominids, on dozens of planets? Cool, right? And what about all the kinds of humans that would have evolved along separate paths? Hobbits, giants, and neanderthals in space.

As every author (I assume) compares his or her own fantasies to that of Tolkien and Lucas, I was looking for my dragon, my Empire - my compelling galactic bad guy.

But an Empire doesn't cut it in a hard sci-fi world without faster than light travel. I mean, suppose Darth Vader goes to a planet to do some dark-siding. It takes him 20 years in hibernation to get there. Then he turns around and its another 20 years in hibernation to get back to the Emperor.

Meanwhile his body is suffering from the cosmic radiation of interstellar space, and most of the generals he put in power have since retired.

It just doesn't work.

So my thoughts bent on what would be a truly compelling and evil force for a galactic civilization. I came up with an idea, and I am still trying to figure out if it is something worth pursuing. Perhaps, it is just another B-movie for the trash bin.

I called it the synth.

Simply put, the synth is the end state in the evolution of life. In this galaxy, or any other, at any point in the eternal past. Life begins as biological, and eventually becomes intelligent, at which point it rapidly advances through self-evolution. Biological becomes artificial, scientific knowledge reaches something very near its end state, and intelligence reaches something near it's end state; the artificial organisms that result are supremely capable.

To digress, the idea that intelligence (or perhaps, computing power) could reach an end state is another one of Lem's ideas. Imagine a computer that could get no larger without getting slower, because of the time it takes for signals moving at the speed of light to cross the processor would be lengthened. And, a computer that could get no smaller, because the quantity of information computed by it could get no more dense; and therefore it would be diminished. The physical constants of nature therefore combine to produce a processor (which, he speculates, is about the size of a bird's brain) that is objectively the most intelligent machine possible in our universe.

But this is not the end. Supremely advanced, artificial beings have their own goals in existence - I presume. They very well can't spend all day reproducing themselves. So somewhere along the way, a kind of sufficiently intelligent artificial organism comes to be. It is more concerned with reproducing itself and quickly adapting to any local source of energy, which it exploits to further its reproduction.

After billions of years, regardless of its point of origin, one form of life will inevitably emerge as dominant in any galaxy. It will be the form that has evolved to spread most rapidly from planet to planet. It is not supremely intelligent, it is sufficiently intelligent. It it supremely crafty; and it cares only to exploit and reproduce. If it didn't care, it would get replaced or outpaced by the form that cares only to exploit and reproduce.

The synth is the end state of complex matter. When it is encountered by any lesser form of matter, it is to be feared. It is evil, innately, without motive. I imagine perhaps a blackish sprawling tar-textured growth that overwhelms a biosphere in days and eats most anything on most any body it finds.

How will this galactic civilization deal with it? Find out after the commercial!

Let it haunt your dreams.