Like Teaching a Chimp Sign Language

Let us imagine, for a moment, that a superior intellect visits Earth. Not simply an alien intellect, different from us, nor one ancient intellect, one roughly our equal but with a million years our senior in technical knowledge and culture. No, I mean a truly superior intellect, one an order of magnitude smarter than we, as we are to the chimpanzee. What could we learn from such an intellect, assuming it was benevolent and sought to teach us?

 

My answer? Not much at all.

 

Washoe the chimpanzee was taught American Sign Language in the late 1960s. Washoe was able to learn about 350 ASL signs, of a total of approximately 7000, or roughly 5% of the language. A chimpanzee is not a stupid creature. It can communicate, lives in social groups and very likely has a culture. What it cannot do, however, is create abstract symbols. According to many scientists, chimps communicate but do not have language. They can learn to use human language, in the form of ASL, as a tool (like they would a sharp stone to break open nuts or a stick to extract termites from a log) but they do not innovate with the language they learn. At best, chimpanzees and other primates can comprehend and manipulate a small portion of what to us comes naturally, because of our innately superior intellect.

 

What does this then mean for us in regards to a visitation by an alien, superior intellect? Assuming the visitors are benevolent, that they wish to teach us and that they are similar enough to us that their mode of communication is fundamentally understandable to us, we could hope for, at best, to understand a small sliver of what they propose to teach. And herein lies the catch: language communicates ideas, and if we cannot grasp the language, we have no hope of comprehending the ideas. Whatever intellectual power allowed them to cross the gulf between stars to come to Earth would be utterly lost on us. Since the language of the cosmos is very likely math, it would be less like us trying to teach chimpanzees to use sign language and more like us trying to teach chimpanzees to do calculus.

 

Interestingly, sadly, the limitations are not simply one way. We are no better at truly understanding the chimp mind than they are at comprehending us. At best, we anthropomorphise the chimpanzee and ascribe to it our own thoughts and emotions, but in a demeaning way. Assuming we were at least somewhat physically similar to our mystery superior intellect, then the best we could hope for is for they to equally misinterpret our motives and crude attempts at communication. However intellectually superior they might be, they would likely be as incapable of reducing themselves to our level and communicating on par with us as we have been with chimpanzees. If they are any thing like us, in fact, we are likely to end up in their zoos and in what passes for their bad comedy films about truck drivers.

 

All this is, strange as it may sound, a best case scenario. It assumes that the superior intellect is similar to us — humanoid, something resembling mammalian, concerned with civilization and culture, egotistically benevolent. What if that superior intellect is fundamentally different than us, however? Then the situation is much less like us and the chimpanzee and more like us and the octopoid. Though they are extremely intelligent creatures, they are also completely different from us. An intelligent alien species that evolved on a world vastly different from our own would not only confound us and be confounded by us the way a chimpanzee does, but would completely defy comprehension in many ways. Would they even recognize us as intelligent beings? Remember — we eat octopus. Alive.

 

If the time should ever come that we are visited by an intelligent species from another world, we should hope that they are our rough intellectual equals. If they are some time — a thousand, ten thousand or even a million years — more technologically advanced than us, we are likely to experience a fate not unlike contact between advanced explorers and aboriginal peoples in Earth’s history. As bad as that may have been. however, it is better than the alternative: to be viewed as just an animal, a lesser being, strange but ultimately a source of curiosity, entertainment and perhaps even trophies and food.

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75 Years of Solemn Heroism

 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of Batman. Last year, it was the 75th anniversary of Superman and while that hero enjoyed broad coverage in the media, I think the Dark Knight is going to be more difficult to celebrate. Not, certainly, because Batman is less well known than Superman — if he is, it is only by the slimmest of margins. Rather, the problem lies with the very nature of the two characters, their inherent differences and their opposite but equivalent places on the spectrum of iconic heroism.

 

Superman is a messianic figure, a savior on par with Mithras or Moses. He represents, in short, hope. Superman fights bad guys, of course, but he is as likely to save innocent lives from earthquakes and meteor showers. His powers are so great that he can halt a tidal wave, extinguish a raging inferno or even turn back time itself. He is a god-like being whose primary interest is in protecting humanity and helping humanity succeed. Superman could end war by enforcing peace, and often writers will have Superman or analogs do just that, but he does not. A favorite trope in Superman stories, when writers are too lazy to create compelling narratives with the so-called “boyscout” Superman, is to cast him in the villain’s role, corrupted by power or despair or rage. But those depictions of Superman serve only to reinforce his fundamental nature as the goodest of the good guys.

 

Batman, however, is different. If Superman represents our desire for a savior, then Batman is a symbol of our desire to act, our need to sometimes get our hands dirty in order to bring about justice. Where Superman is a being of light whose depictions sometimes swing into dark places, Batman is the opposite. His time in the light is a parody of himself; he is most at home in the darkness. Where Clark Kent is the ultimate adoptive child, raised by loving parents to see the good in all people, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate orphan, a victim who is constantly reliving his tragic loss. This is not to imply weakness on the character’s part — some writers depict it as such, an obsession that paralyzes Batman into inaction, while most depict it as the source of Batman’s unending dedication to his his quest for justice. Rather, it is an exquisitely human motivation, one that we can understand, embrace and even, in our darker moods, imagine for ourselves.

 

Both Batman and Superman are adolescent male power fantasies; I do not refer to them in that way to as a pejorative, but as a fact. The men who created both characters were, in fact, adolescent males and they were powerless in a world of depressed economy, crime and corruption. Their heroes had the power to confront these issues, Superman and Batman each in their own ways. Their careers would run parallel from then on, Superman always in the light while Batman would emerge from his shadows to combat alien menaces and laughable villains, only to be drawn back into the shadows where he belonged.

 

This story from CNN illustrates the difficulty with which the modern popular media will have in trying to do stories about Batman at this anniversary. While the people interviewed were certainly inspired by Batman, one feels the need for quiet reflection on them rather than the parades and ballyhoo that Superman’s anniversary engendered.

 

If we imagine for a moment that Batman were real, that Brice Wayne was real, we imagine a hero who is equal part victim. We imagine a man who has spent three quarters of a century trying to come to grips with the worst tragedy a child could possibly suffer, the worst images a child could possibly witness. We imagine a man who has dedicated everything he has, everything he is, to the singular goal of ensuring no child ever suffers like he did, that no person ever suffers like he continues to suffer every day. Batman does not stop earthquakes or alien invasions, he stops killers. Batman does not turn back tidal waves, he turns back tragedy. Batman does not fly in to save our lives, he swoops in to save our hearts and minds. It is heroism, but it is a solemn, dark heroism that asks us to feel dark and solemn things as we consider it.

Friday Flash Fiction: Lifepunk

Chuck Wendig of terribleminds.com throws out a flash fiction prompt on a weekly basis. As it has been a while since I have done my own Friday Flash, and the idea of creating an all new something-punk genre story appealed to me, I decided to give it a go.

 

So, without further ado, here is a brief story in the genre I call “lifepunk.”

———-

 

Sonny peered through the blinds. Blinds. What a ridiculously quaint furnishing. They were a throwback to an era before smart windows, when privacy and modesty were worshipped as gods, along with productivity and conformity. That they adorned these windows, his parents’ windows, did not surprise Sonny in the least. In that way, the blinds were a perfect example of everything he was fighting against, of everything he did not want, of all the old things that would not go away.

 

“It’s not going to work,” said Emil. He was pacing back and forth in the living room, between the wall screen and the blinds covered windows where Sonny stood. The wall screen was a more recent furnishing than the blinds, certainly, but still old enough to exemplify the technological and cultural atrophy Sonny despised — and feared.

 

“It will work,” said Sonny. He peaked through the slats again and this time he saw flashing lights. He smiled and reached for his belt where he felt the hard grip of the revolver. It, too, was quaint — quaint, antiquated, outmoded, ancient, positively antediluvian. It belonged to Sonny’s father, as well. The man had not changed, could not change, to the point of ignoring the law for over a century to hold onto this strange, murderous piece of steel.

 

Emil quickened his pacing and started to talk quickly. “It isn’t going to work. They are not going to do it. They are just going to tranq us and format us and then what? Nothing. That’s what. Nothing, forever.”

 

Even as the flashing lights grew brighter — the police flyers were descending, he knew — Sonny tore himself away from the blinds and his fingers from the revolver and he grabbed Emil by the face and kissed him long and deep and hard. Then, he said, “That is not going to happen,” and Emil could not have believed him more if the words had come from a burning bush.

 

With Emil calmer, Sonny went back to the window. and peaked. He could see the beetle shaped flyers coming to rest on the lawn and street. “We’re anarchists,” he said. “They won’t know what to do with anarchy, so they will over react. They can’t help it. It’s what happens when you never grow old and you never change.

***

Captain Sandvik manually checked the charge on her tranq rifle while the flyer descended. It was an unnecessary action since all the data about her equipment — not just the rifle, but her armor and med-unit and sensor suite — was piped into her field of vision via heads up eyeplants, but it was a comforting habit. She had been, after all, been doing it for decades, as long as she had been a cop. Over the long years she had found that the tools changed, but she never changed and neither did the criminals.

 

She surveyed the men in the flyer with her. Most sat patiently waiting for the thing to land. Conteh looked impatient, ready for a fight. Otero looked nervous. Sandvik recalled that Otero was young, just fifty, and probably had never seen any real action. It was rare. Even she had not fired her tranq in twenty years.

 

The flyer touched down and the door folded away. She was on her feet and out into the yard immediately, followed and flanked by her subordinate officers. Before her stood the enemy fortress, a one story, three bedroom suburban house at the end of a cul de sac. She ordered her men to take up defensive positions and the remaining flyers to maintain clear airspace and looked over the house. She thought, nice blinds.

***

“Oh, god,” whined Emil. “It’s happening.” He looked like he was going to puke, then did, all over the retro afghan rug.

 

“Not yet,” said Sonny to himself, but then to Emil he added, “It’s okay, hon. This is what we wanted, remember?”

 

Emil wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “I don’t know,” he said. Sonny glowered and he added swiftly, “I mean, I did, but now that we’re here, that it’s about to happen, I’m scared.”

 

Sonny softened his expression in the practiced way of a long time significant other. His very awareness of it irked him. It was habit, nothing more, a normal behavior made mechanical by long years of repetition. Even so, he remained placid.

 

“Emil, honey, we went over this again and again. How old are we?”

 

After a moment of hesitation, Emil answered, “I’m seventy five. You’re seventy nine.”

 

“Right,” said Sonny, “and what’s our favorite band?”

 

“The Larks.”

 

“Right, and how old were we when they came out?”

 

“I don’t know. Thirty, maybe?”

 

“Yeah,” said Sonny, his eyes flashing. “Our favorite band has been the same for almost fifty years. Do you know why?”

 

Emil shook his head.

 

“Because we don’t change. Because nothing changes. Because we don’t age and we don’t have to go through the stages of life. We were thirty when we got Treated. We’ll be thirty forever.”

 

Yeah, I know, Sonny. It’s just, is that so bad?”

 

Sonny raged, drawing the revolver and waving it in Emil’s direction. “Yes! God, yes! The whoe, world is thirty, or fifty or seventy like my ridiculous parents. Everyone is stuck, forever, at the age they got Treated and now people are Treating their kids because they don’t want them to ever age or grow up. It’s sick, Emil! It’s wrong!”

***

There was movement inside. Despite the blinds, Captain Sandvik could see with her HUD that one man, one of the anarchist terrorists who claimed to have planted bombs at the Treatment facility, was waving a very old fashioned gun around. “get ready,” she ordered.

 

She was directing Otero toward the south side of the house when the bang! reverberated through the house and into the yard. Later, surveillance video would show the embrace and the kiss and the intimate murder. At the time, though, Sandvik was hitting the grass as bullets flew out into the yard through the blinds.

 

Most of her men took cover. Some cowered. It was Conteh, though, that hunkered down, aimed and fired into the house. She knew from the sound of it that his rifle was not armed with tranqs.

***

“I love you,” said Sonny. He let Emil slip to the floor, kissed him once on the forehead, and then turned and fired wildly through the blinds into the front yard. It only took a moment before one of the police fulfilled Sonny’s promise.

 

As he faded, Sonny felt grateful. No prison of eternal, unchanged Sonny-ness would hold him.

***

There were no bombs at the Treatment facility, or even an anarchist cell. Sandvik shook her head. Why two guys her own age would commit suicide by cop when they had literally forever to look forward to, she did not understand — nor could she.

 

Inspirational As Fuck

On Sunday, March 9, 2014, Fox (the entertainment channel, not the “news” channel) began their broadcast of the new COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey television series.

 

The following video pretty much sums up my reaction:

 

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Whoever that kid is, here is hoping she remembers this in 20 or 30 years.

 

Watching the new COSMOS was an interesting experience. As a fan of science and science edutainment in general, I was pretty familiar with most of the actual scientific information conveyed by the show’s amazing host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The fact was, in fact, that there was not a lot of it there (although I must say that historical information surrounding Giordano Bruno was new to me) which I found mildly disappointing. That is, until I realized that science, or at least specific scientific facts, are not the point of the new COSMOS. It was only when Tyson, at the end of the episode, gave his very personal account of a meeting with the late, great Carl Sagan that I understood what COSMOS intended to be:

 

Inspirational As Fuck.

 

Take a look at that video linked above. THAT is why this new COSMOS exists. Scientific literacy and interest are at an all time low and the future of human spaceflight may not sit with America. In light of this turn of events in the latter quarter of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, a show like Tyson’s (and Seth MacFarlane — yes, the Family Guy guy) COSMOS is not just a good idea, but a necessary step in the war for the minds, hearts and dreams of the next generation. Both Tyson and MacFarlane have expressed in multiple interviews the importance of making sure the show would be broadcast on a national network as opposed to a niche cable network like Discovery Channel. In short, it comes down to navel gazing and preaching to the choir: viewers like me, who search out NOVA and The Universe for our edutainment don’t “need” COSMOS. Arguably, my kids don’t either, because I have already exposed them to science and science based entertainment. But, if America is to regain its prominence is science and technology and have a shot at competing in the new, global space race, the next generation of American Idol viewers to fall in love with, well, the cosmos.

 

As a writer of science fiction, I think about the future a lot. My views, whether I am optimistic or pessimistic, vary over time, depending on my mood. I must admit that right now, I am in a pessimistic mood regarding humanity’s future as it relates to technology and especially human exploration of and migration into space. I don’t necessarily believe that we can summon the wherewithal to achieve great advances in human spaceflight before circumstances — over population, climate change, imminent asteroid impact, or what have you — make it necessary. I would be more surprised, frankly, in a human exodus to the other planets than I would in the complete collapse of human civilization. Even if we leave this cradle, I do not think whatever it is that leaves would continue to be able to be called human: human is a very specific creature, evolved on a very specific world, to which life in orbit and/or on an alien world is inimical.

 

But then, I watch as Neil deGrasse Tyson guide me through a visually stunning tour of the cosmos and a little part of my old, optimistic self flutters to life. For just a moment, I imagine a clean, Rodenberry-esque future where dedicated research and the intentional rejection of divisive politics, religion and economics has allowed us to solve the scientific and engineering challenges inherent in the idea of not simply human habitation in space, but human mastery of it. For those few moments, before all my fears of human weakness, greed and stupidity quash that vision, I see the future that COSMOS is offering.

Story versus Prose

I have been doing a lot of self reflection on my own writing and writing preferences lately, mostly in attempting to understand why I have so much difficulty. Among a number of other things, I have started to understand that, at least for me, there is a fundamental conflict between Story and Prose. Or, rather, the two vie for my time, energy and attention in the writing process itself, and the casualty is usually a completed work.

I am a disciple of Story, first and foremost. What happens — both what actually happens, and what is happening, if you get my meaning of the difference — is the point. No matter what else you are trying to accomplish with the story — to titillate, to inform, to inspire — you cannot accomplish it without the story itself. By story, I mean the arc of the tale, the beginning(s), middle(s) and end(s). Big Fat Fantasy of literary micro-fiction, the core is the same, like how a fish’s skeleton and a human’s are fundamentally alike. That is not to say that all stories are fundamentally the same, but rather that all stories must have Story to be more than mere ideas or descriptions.

That said, I also love the craft of writing, the Prose. It simply feels good to manipulate the formless ephemera of words into a real thing. A well crafted sentence is a jewel unto itself, and a well written story is a crown. It takes time and care and, most of all, experience to produce such art. It can be a frustrating process, discarding one imperfect word, phrase or sentence after another until the perfect one appears. And when it does not, the hard choice must be made between stopping everything or leaving something lesser in place and going on.

I was not fully aware of the conflict between Story and Prose, though the unnamed idea of it was often a cloud in my mind, until relatively recently when I finally read The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. The Last Unicorn is one of my favorite stories. I first saw the animated film as a child and have watched it innumerable times throughout my life. I knew the film so well, in fact, that I never bothered to read the novel. I cannot say for certain why this is; The Last Unicorn is hardly the only adaptation I was exposed to before the original material, but still I read The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, for example. Perhaps I knew that those adaptations were incomplete or inaccurate, since Tolkien’s work inspires a kind of fandom beagle’s does not and therefore I was more fully aware of the Good Professor’s works in a way I was not familiar with Beagle’s. Or perhaps it was simply that the film was so satisfying to me, I could not imagine what value the novel might have — or worse, I feared that I would love the film better (an unforgivable crime for a young, budding writer).  Whatever the cause, I only finally read the novel The Last Unicorn mere months ago. Upon doing so, I hated myself for waiting so terribly long.

Beagle’s Prose, his mastery of the language, is nothing short of amazing, rivaling the likes of Hemingway in my opinion. I found in reading The Last Unicorn that I experienced it in an entirely new way, even though the story was nearly identical to that of the film. Contrast this with The Lord of the Rings, which I am currently re-reading: Tolkien also has a mastery over his use of language (though in a very different way than Beagle), but since so much of my reading attention is directed at how different Peter Jackson’s adaptations were, I feel almost as if I am less able to enjoy the Prose because of the differences in Story.

 

Once I read The Last Unicorn and became consciously aware of the distinction in my mind between Prose and Story, I began to look at my own writing in a different way. Specifically, I started to look at why I was having such trouble finishing some stories, or producing a good version of some stories. What I began to realize is that in some cases I had a Story I wanted to tell, but was trying to tell it with a kind of Prose that does not come naturally to me, or was not a natural fit for the Story. The sort of Modernist writing style, where we describe all the actions and emotions of the character has become the expected, even demanded, form of Prose for our written fiction. This is a relatively new development, though. From ancient epics to folkloric tales to all the other media we consume, most storytelling we do is focused on the characters and events, the Story itself. One could write a 5000 word short story version of Hansel and Gretel, for example, but would it be “better” by any measure than the shorter form used to tell the events of the tale to children before bedtime? Prose is art and can be beautiful for its own sake, but it can also weigh down the Story, obscuring it under layers of unnecessary detail. I realized that in many cases, I was trying to tell a piece of folklore or talk about a series of things that happened in this imaginary place to these imaginary people, but was not, in fact, trying to “write a story” in the conventional sense.

 

The questions arises, then: is there a market for such fiction? In a world dominated by Modernist, Prose-centric preferences, is there a place for Story-telling? I worried that the answer was “no” until I realized something very important: the world of non-fiction, from magazine features to biographies, looks very much like this. When we are telling stories about what were or are or might be, involving real people, we almost invariably focus on Story rather than Prose. (This, of course, does not mean there is not a place for strong writing and a good turn of phrase.) And I realized, then, that there is no reason why that form of storytelling can’t be applied to fiction as well, and that there is sure to be a market for it in the same way that there is a market for non-fiction in that form.