Science Fiction from the satallite-eye view

The John Glenn post got me thinking how I’d approach writing hard(ish) SF. I wouldn’t want it to be too realistic, since that would be boring and wouldn’t include space travel. And there’s the issue of AI, which can break an SF story pretty easily, and you want to leave the possibility of interplanetary trade/warfare, but no story-breaking teleportation.

First of all, there’s Athena, the one superintelligence humanity has managed to built. She is (also uniquely) a quantum gravity computer, and can use closed timelike curves for computation1.

Athena2 was created as part of a project to allow interstellar travel. The concept of interstellar travel works like this: The topology of the universe has a dense subset of microscopic “wormholes”, that is, random pairs of points that are identified with each other. When asked, Athena can take advantage of these holes to find two coherent sets of holes in different solar systems, and transport an object instantly from one to the other. While this could, in principle, allow time travel (which Athena, as a QG computer, already takes advantage of), in practice Athena artificially maintains causality by using an internal universal clock: If one ship is transported from system A to system B, and then an hour later (in system A time) another ship is transported the same route, the second ship will be transferred to System B at the point in time one hour after the first ship arrived.

The other primary purpose of Athena is to prevent humanity from creating other AI. Nobody is quite sure how she does this, since she never interferes with humanity in any visible way, aside from occasionally answering questions. These answers are always true, informative, and helpful, and (aside from the teleportation, which is entirely predetermined) are Athena’s only interaction with humanity. The one degree of freedom Athena has is which questions she chooses to answer. For a superintelligence effectively capable of time travel, this is more than enough.

There are many things about how Athena was created that no one is quite sure of. It’s unknown if she was created as a superintelligence who quickly used her superintelligence to develop QG and teleportation abilities, or if she was originally created as a teleportation device whose QG abilities let self-hijack into superintelligence. Nobody’s sure who created her – whoever it was, the first thing he used Athena for was to destroy all traceable records of himself. Being the one person with the ability to mess with Athena’s priorities, he has, in effect, godlike power.

Actually, these questions are a lot more fun once you remove causality, which we are totally allowed to do once we have time travel. Which direction was Athena created? Doesn’t matter! In the interests of minimizing the complexity of a world in which QG computing is possible, there must exist exactly one QG computer whose primary job is, in effect, to minimize use of time travel. Is the creator a human who got godlike power, or a god who came to humanity, engineered a QG computer, and disappeared? Again, from the non-causality viewpoint, it doesn’t matter – there must exist a unique creator of a QG computer, who for all practical purposes is effectively a higher power (but would inevitably have some human quirks, which make for a good story and also kind of explain why the biblical God is so humanistically capricious. This also explains why humanity hasn’t met aliens.)

Meanwhile, interplanetary politics rely heavily on trade. Earth technology is heavily dependent on all sorts of minerals and resources that are bizarrely common on Earth (in particular, only Earth has fossil fuels, since only earth has fossils). Therefore there needs to be a lot of trade for all the resources needed to sustain advanced technology, especially the rocketry needed for interplanetary travel (While interstellar travel is handled by Athena, the error in teleportation is large enough that ships need a travel range on the order of a hundred million miles). The rich and powerful worlds are those who are either old enough to have developed technology more reliant on their particular mix of available resources, or those within reach of enough planets and asteroids to supply themselves with a wide range of resources. Warfare and piracy of (or between) the second type is reasonably common. Different planetary systems can thus allowed to have many types of communities and governments.

The actual story, on the other hand, needs to be told from a ground-level perspective. The first arc is fairly fairy-taleish: A small-town guy in an obscure (but fairly old, and thus mostly self-reliant due to idiosyncratic technology) world goes on a quest – let’s say, to save the local princess. On the way he enlists the help of the cranky old mathematician3, who lives as a hermit on a hill in the nearby forest and can figure out spaceflight. They find the princess somehow, but this raises new and troubling questions. (I have a mental image of her turning into a piranha plant and attacking them; this is probably a metaphor).

The second arc starts off with the mathematician’s philosophical exposition. He’s been wondering about Athena’s creator for years, and the troubling issues raised in the first arc (I really need to think of some appropriate issues) inspired him to look deeper into the question through them. He drags the rest along in what is, in effect, a quest to find a god.

The finale involves somehow meeting the creator, who scattered the breadcrumbs that led to them taking the quest (and the self-discovery involved) in the first place. They (and the reader) are left to wonder at his motivations – was he just having fun with them? Was this quest unique for them, or does everyone eventually get a secret voyage of self-realization which gives their lives meaning?

The characters (except maybe a younger one they meet at the end, who is inspired to start his own quest over an important issue that was somehow never resolved) have become philosophically satisfied, and retire to a life of peaceful farming.

1. I really hope I got the physics and computability theory here at least mostly right. Whatever mistakes are here, I’m chalking up to poetic license.

2. Athena was originally named on the fun coincidence of being both the goddess of wisdom and the younger sister of Apollo, since I like the idea that the last project to allow interstellar travel was the younger twin of the project to reach the moon. This was ruined when I remembered that Apollo’s sister is Artemis, not Athena.

1. We really need more fictional mathematicians. The only two I remember off the top of my head are Hari Seldon and Nicolas Bourbaki.

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