Which is worse? A world where human beings engineer a more successful intelligence or one where we engineer more successful biological life forms? What if both things are happening simultaneously? Most of us are not scientists who happen live in Cambridge or Boston, which evidently are the main hotspots for thinking about these sorts of problems. What if you’re just a humble writer who gets itchy when it seems that near future probabilities are outpacing cataclysmic conditions in your imagined worlds? I think we need a CalamityCon. Seriously. We need a place to learn about these issues in greater depth and contribute to the thinking about preventive measures. Note: This is not the duty of writers, and no one should be obligated to do any such thing, but it surely wouldn’t harm the world’s science community to hear from us, no?
Chinese author Cixin Liu brings us a first-contact story in The Three-Body Problem (TTBP) that is familiar, yet promises a fresh spin on the protagonists’ choices and the outcome. I debated whether or not to call this a review because I’m not going to talk about the writing itself, which I felt was somewhat uneven. BUT, if you’re interested in one humble writer’s impressions of some of the novel’s big ideas, read on. SPOILER ALERT: I will describe big pieces of the story here. You’ve been warned.
First, let’s sketch out the basic story. Set in China’s recent past and moving into the near future, three primary characters with very different personal motivations are faced with preparing for first contact with aliens that are on their way to earth. At times, trying to follow the novel’s physics made my eyes glaze over, but the effort was totally worth it. As a nonscientist, I feel one can best appreciate this novel when one understands the roles of the main characters, so here’s a summary.
The story begins with young astrophysicist Ye Wenjie witnessing the death of her father at the hands of red guards during the Cultural Revolution. She is emotionally broken and is accepts her confinement to a remote radio astronomy station. Used for her research and scientific talents, Ye gradually figures out that the station’s actual purpose is to hunt for signs of alien life in the universe and her research has direct bearing on this activity. Isolated and depressed, her only interest is whether or not her theory of using the sun as an amplifier for transmitting radio messages into the universe will work. After trying her experiment and not receiving any confirmation of its success, she mechanically moves through life until one night when she sees a new pattern in the monitored radio waves. She deciphers a message from space. That message is followed by a warning not to answer the first message. Ye disregards the warning and answers. Continue reading
Good news! The third installment of “The Return on Investment” is up on the Free Stories page! Daniela is working on the Spanish translation and that should be up soon, too. I am currently looking for a Hindi translator, so please raise your hand if you’re interested.
I did not expect this story to expand the way it has, but sometimes you just don’t know what is going to happen while you’re writing. And if, like me, you make the crazy decision to start posting parts of a story before the story is completely finished, well…. It will just serve me right if this one blows up in my face. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it could–because I haven’t written the end yet!!! It is highly likely that I will have to re-edit earlier parts once I drag myself over the finish line. I promise you this, Dear Reader, there is only one more part to this story. I know how it should end, and I’m hoping all the characters agree.
Who is quoted below, in a landmark article on artificial intelligence last year?
“If we understood exactly what the [artificial intelligence] potentials are, then we’d have a much better grip on how to sculpt it toward ends that we find desirable. But I think a widely perceived issue is when intelligent entities start to take on a life of their own. They revolutionized the way we understand chess, for instance. That’s pretty harmless. But one can imagine if they revolutionized the way we think about warfare or finance, either those entities themselves or the people that control them. It could pose some disquieting perturbations on the rest of our lives.”
Answer: Frank Wilczek, professor of physics, in “But What Would the End of Humanity Mean for Me?” The Atlantic, May 9, 2014. Wilczek’s quote is just part of a fascinating article referencing some impressive warnings from some impressive minds.