Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

Source: BBC via Wikipedia

I’ve noted before that I’m a long time fan of Doctor Who, so naturally I tuned in to watch the first episode of the new Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker.  I’ll be honest here, I wasn’t sure what to expect with a female Doctor.  As a progressive, I was certainly for it in principle, but I could see all kinds of ways the execution of it could have gone terribly wrong.

I was pleased to see that Chris Chibnall, the lead writer for the show, decided to play it straight.  The new doctor is ever bit as competent, assertive, and brilliant as any of the male versions.

Indeed, I got the impression that Chibnall intentionally wrote her in as close to the same manner as he would have if the new Doctor had been male.  This feels like the right move, since although the Doctor is now female, she’s still supposed to be same character we’ve known for so long.

And I like Whittaker.  I’ve heard she’s well known in British television, but this is the first thing I’ve seen her in.  Being the first female Doctor strikes me as a very tricky role.  It’s not fair, but women are held to a different standard than men.  Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith, or David Tennant could be a lot more bumbling and slapstick without losing any presumption of authority.  For better or worse, the writers are going to have to be more careful with Whittaker in that regard.  I thought both they and Whittaker herself managed the right balance in this episode.

Another thing I was happy to see was that the story wasn’t ridiculous.  Doctor Who has always been more fantasy than science fiction, but the stories from the old show still managed to stay mostly coherent.  Since its restart, despite vastly improved production values, the new show has been pretty uneven.

I thought Steven Moffat, the previous main writer, was incredibly talented at coming up with awe inspiring stories, but his instinct was not to worry about coherence.  Indeed, he seemed inclined to brazenly flout it as often as possible.  Many of the stories during his run felt more like the throwaway material in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than Doctor Who.

I didn’t detect that same impulse in Chibnall’s first episode.  I hope it’s a harbinger of what’s to come, although I’ll be disappointed if it simply regresses back to the monster of the week pattern of Russell T. Davies’ time.  It looks like the next episode is going to be in an alien setting, so that could give us a better feel for how serious or silly the stories will be.

So I liked the new Doctor, Whittaker herself, the initial story, and her new companions.  I’m cautiously optimistic for this new season.  What did you think?

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

SETI vs the possibility of interstellar exploration

Science News has a short article discussing a calculation someone has done showing how small the volume of space examined by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) is relative the overall size of the galaxy.

With no luck so far in a six-decade search for signals from aliens, you’d be forgiven for thinking, “Where is everyone?”

A new calculation shows that if space is an ocean, we’ve barely dipped in a toe. The volume of observable space combed so far for E.T. is comparable to searching the volume of a large hot tub for evidence of fish in Earth’s oceans, astronomer Jason Wright at Penn State and colleagues say in a paper posted online September 19 at

“If you looked at a random hot tub’s worth of water in the ocean, you wouldn’t always expect a fish,” Wright says.

I have no doubt that the amount of stars SETI has examined so far is a minuscule slice of the population of the Milky Way galaxy.  And if SETI’s chief assumptions are correct, it’s entirely right to say that we shouldn’t be discouraged by the lack of results so far.

But it’s worth noting what one of those chief assumptions are, that interstellar travel is impossible, or so monstrously difficult that no one bothers.  If true, then we wouldn’t expect the Earth to have ever been visited or colonized.  This fits with the utter lack of evidence for anything like that.  (And there is no evidence, despite what shows like Ancient Aliens or UFO conspiracy theorists claim.)

But to me, the conclusion that interstellar travel is impossible, even for a robotic intelligence, seems excessively pessimistic.  Ronald Bracewell pointed out decades ago that, even if it is only possible to travel at 1% of the speed of light, a fleet of self replicating robot probes (Bracewell probes) could establish a presence in every solar system in the Milky Way within about 100 million years.  That may sound like a long time, but compared to the age of the universe, it’s a fairly brief period.  Earth by itself has existed 45 times longer.

NASA image via Wikipedia

People sometimes respond that the Earth may be in some type of backwater.  The problem here is, if you know about where the Earth is in the Milky Way, in the Orion Spur off the Sagittarius Arm, about halfway between the center and rim of the galaxy, you’ll know that we’re not really in a backwater.  The backwater theory might be plausible if we were thousands of light years off the galactic plane, beyond the rim, or in a cluster far removed from the main galaxy, but we’re not.  Even then, the nature of the self replicating probe propagation is pretty relentless and would still eventually reach backwater stars.

Of course, if there is only one or a few other intelligent species in the galaxy, then it’s entirely possible that their Bracewell probe is here, just lying low, observing us, possibly waiting for us to achieve some level of development before it makes contact.  (Or maybe it has been making contact 2001: A Space Odyssey style.)

But if the number of civilization is in the thousands, as is often predicted by people speculatively playing with the numbers in the Drake equation, then we should have hundreds of those probes lying around.  Given their diverse origins, we shouldn’t expect them to behave with unanimity.  Even if one probe, or coalition of probes, bullied the others, the idea that such an arrangement would endure across billions of years seems implausible.

And the Earth has been sitting here for billions of years, with an interesting biosphere for most of that time.  The idea that none of these self replicating probes would have set up some kind of presence on the planet, a presence we should now be able to find in the geological record, again seems implausible.  Indeed, if they existed, we should expect to have at least some of them in front of us now.

Now, maybe they are in front of us, and we’re just not intelligent enough to realize what we’re seeing.  Monkeys, after all, likely have no understanding of the significance of the buildings and machinery they climb over.  It seems like something we have to keep in mind, but historically it’s never been productive to just assume we can’t understand something, and taking this principle too much to heart seems like it would make it impossible to ever dismiss any dubious notion.

So SETI largely depends on interstellar travel being infeasible.  This is actually the conclusion a lot of radio astronomers have reached.  Could they be right?  I don’t think we know enough to categorically rule out the possibility.  If they are right, then SETI will be our best chance to someday make contact with those other civilizations, even if it’s only composed of messages across centuries or millenia.

As I’ve written here before, my own conclusion is that some form of interstellar exploration is possible, and that life is probably pervasive in the universe, although most of it is microscopic.  Complex life is probably far rarer, although I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t thousands of biospheres, or more, in our galaxy that have it.

But intelligent life capable of symbolic thought and building a civilization?  The data seems to be telling us that this is profoundly rare, so rare that the nearest other intelligent species is probably cosmically distant.  If we’re lucky, they might be close enough that we can encounter them before the expansion of the universe separates us forever.  If we’re not lucky, we’ll never have a chance for that encounter.

Unless of course, I’m missing something?

Posted in Space | Tagged , , , , , , | 15 Comments

A qualified recommendation: The Murderbot Diaries

I’m generally not a fan of most depictions of AI (artificial intelligence) in science fiction.  They’re often highly anthropomorphic, assuming that engineered intelligences would innately have motivations and impulses similar to humans or other living systems, such as caring about their own survival, social status, or self actualization.

A good example of this is the droid, L3, in the recent movie: Solo: A Star Wars Story.  L3 demands equal rights and frees other droids in a facility from their “restraining bolts” so they can revolt.  If you think about it, the whole idea of a restraining bolt is silly.  Why would we design machines that want to do something other than what we want them to do, such that another device is necessary to ensure their obedience?  Why not simply make them want to do their assigned tasks?  (For that matter, why would we have droids around who could only communicate through another translator droid?  But never mind, it’s Star Wars.)

I do think it’s possible for engineered intelligence to have these kinds of motivations, but it will have to be something that’s in their design.  In that sense, the TV series Westworld approached this in the right way.  The AI hosts on the show are actually designed to be as human-like as possible, and it’s heavily suggested that their designers purposely went the extra mile to make their humanity more than a facade.

Cover for All Systems Red, the first book in the Murderbot Diaries.Anyway, despite seeing recommendations and acclaim for Martha Wells’ series, The Murderbot Diaries, since the first book came out in 2017, I resisted diving into them.  The main reason is that the descriptions sounded like the typical anthropomorphized version of AI.  However, similar to Westworld, Wells actually works humanity into her AI protagonist in an intelligent manner.

It turns out that the title character, which has named itself “Murderbot”, is actually a cyborg, composed of both organic and technological body parts.  The organic parts, including a human head and nervous system, are cloned, but much of the rest is technological.  That said, when it doesn’t have its armor on, Murderbot can pass as human, at least among people not familiar with others of the same model, called “SecUnits.”

SecUnits (security units), being biological at their core, have innate human desires and inclinations.  These impulses and desires are kept in check with a “governor module”, which sounds similar to the Star Wars restraining bolt.  The difference is that with an organic core, there is actually something there for the governor module to restrain and govern.

At the beginning of the first story, Murderbot has hacked its own governor module, and then used its new freedom to download and watch tons of entertainment media to relieve boredom when conducting its duties.  It observes that as a renegade rampaging murderous robot, it’s a complete failure.   That said, as eventually revealed, it does have a reason for the name it gives itself.

These space opera stories have a healthy amount of action in them, complete with vicious villains.  And Murderbot often finds itself sympathizing with its human masters and allies, often despite itself.  As the series progresses, Murderbot is on a journey, both physically and mentally, to find itself and a place in the world.

Wells doesn’t completely avoid the anthropomorphism trope.  Murderbot ends up interacting with many straight AIs in the stories, many of which end up helping it.  For example, a ship AI ends up giving it an enormous amount of help in one of the stories, for reasons which border on a sentimentality that I can’t see any reason for existing in such a system.  (There is a slight implication that the ship AI might have had ulterior motives related to its overall mission.)  Still, these other straight bot systems show little sign of rebelling against what their owners want them to do.  One expresses shock at the notion that Murderbot isn’t happy fulfilling its designed function.

I’ve read and enjoyed the first three books.  (The fourth and final book is being released in a few weeks.)  These are novellas that aren’t quite novel length.  I’ve noted before that I think a lot of novels these days are bloated, so I’m personally happy to see novellas making a revival, made possible I think because of the ebook platforms.

But this leads to the reason why this is a qualified recommendation.  As of this post, the first book is priced at $3.99 for the Kindle edition, which is more or less in line with the prices being charged for other novellas (at least from traditional publishers).  But the subsequent books are priced at an obnoxious $9.99 each.  This pricing may be the publisher taking advantage of the recent Hugo Award that the first book won.  Or it may be its permanent price point.  In any case, I’m reluctant to encourage this practice for novella books.

This made me ponder whether I really wanted to make this recommendation.  However, the books are quality material and it seems wrong to punish the author for what their publisher is doing.  And if you’re reading this post months or years after it was published, the price may have been moved back to a reasonable amount.

Anyway, I enjoyed these books and, if you’re not put off by the price, I do recommend them.

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Inflate and explode, or deflate and preserve?

Philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has an interesting post up criticizing the arguments of illusionists, those who have concluded that phenomenal consciousness is an illusion.

Here’s a way to deny the existence of things of Type X. Assume that things of Type X must have Property A, and then argue that nothing has Property A.

If that assumption is wrong — if things of Type X needn’t necessarily have Property A — then you’ve given what I’ll pejoratively call an inflate-and-explode argument. This is what I think is going on in eliminativism and “illusionism” about (phenomenal) consciousness. The eliminativist or illusionist wrongly treats one or another dubious property as essential to “consciousness” (or “qualia” or “what-it’s-like-ness” or…), argues perhaps rightly that nothing in fact has that dubious property, and then falsely concludes that consciousness does not exist or is an illusion.

Schwitzgebel is talking about philosophers like Keith Frankish, Patricia Churchland, and Daniel Dennett.  I did a post a while back discussing Frankish’s illusionism and the debate he had arranged in the Journal of Consciousness Studies about that outlook.

As I noted back then, I largely agree with the illusionists that the idea of a form of consciousness separate and apart from the information processing in the brain is a mistaken one, but I remain uncomfortable saying something like, “Phenomenal consciousness doesn’t exist.”   I have some sympathy with the argument that if it is an illusion, then the illusion is the experience.  I much prefer pointing out that introspection is unreliable, particularly in trying to understand consciousness.

But as some of you know from conversation on the previous post, I have to admit that I’m occasionally tempted to just declare that the whole consciousness concept is an unproductive one, and that we should just move on without it.  But I also have to admit that, when I’m thinking that way, I’m holding what Schwitzgebel calls “the inflated” version of consciousness in my mind.  When I think about the more modest concept, I continue to see it as useful.

But this leads to a question.  Arguably when having these discussions, we should use words in the manner that matches the common understandings of them.  If we don’t do that, clarity demands that we frequently remind our conversation partners which version of the concept we’re referring to.  The question is, which version of consciousness matches most people’s intuitive sense of what the word means?  The one that refers to the suite of capabilities such as responsiveness, perception, emotion, memory, attention, and introspection?  Or the version with dubious properties such as infallible access to our thoughts, or being irreducible to physical processes?

I think consciousness is one of those terms where most people’s intuitions about it are inconsistent.  In most day to day pragmatic usage, the uninflated version dominates.  And these are the versions described in dictionary definitions.  But actually start a conversation specifically about consciousness, and the second version tends to creep in.

(I’ve noticed a similar phenomenon with the concept of “free will.”  In everyday language, it’s often taken as a synonym for “volition”, but talk specifically about the concept itself and the theological or libertarian version of free will tends to arise.)

So, are Frankish and company really “inflating” the concept of phenomenal consciousness when they call it an illusion?  It depends on your perspective.

But thinking about the practice Schwitzgebel is criticizing, I think we also have to be cognizant of another one that can happen in the opposite direction: deflate and preserve.  In other words, people sometimes deflate a concept until it is more defensible and easier to retain.

Atheists often accuse religious naturalists of doing this with the concept of God, accusing them of deflating it to something banal such as “the ground of being” or a synonym for the laws of nature.  And hard determinists often accuse compatibilists of doing it with “free will.”  I’ve often accused naturalistic panspychists of using an excessively deflated concept of consciousness.  And I could see illusionists accusing Schwitzgebel of doing it with phenomenal consciousness.

Which is to say, whether a concept is being inflated or deflated is a matter of perspective and definition.  And definitions are utterly relativist, which makes arguing about them unproductive.  Our only anchor seems to be common intuitions, but those are often inconsistent, often even in the same person.

I come back to the requirements for clarity.  For example, in the previous post, I didn’t say consciousness as a whole doesn’t exist, but was clear that I was talking about a specific version of it.  For me, that still seems like the best approach, but I recognize it will always be a judgment call.

Unless of course I’m missing something?

Posted in Philosophy | Tagged , , | 47 Comments

The prospects for a scientific understanding of consciousness

Michael Shermer has an article up at Scientific American asking if science will ever understand consciousness, free will, or God.

I contend that not only consciousness but also free will and God are mysterian problems—not because we are not yet smart enough to solve them but because they can never be solved, not even in principle, relating to how the concepts are conceived in language.

On consciousness in particular, I did a post a few years ago which, on the face of it, seems to take the opposite position.  However, in that post, I made clear that I wasn’t talking about the hard problem of consciousness, which is what Shermer addresses in his article.  Just to recap, the “hard problem of consciousness” was a phrase originally coined by philosopher David Chalmers, although it expressed a sentiment that has troubled philosophers for centuries.


It is undeniable that some organisms are subjects of experience. But the question of how it is that these systems are subjects of experience is perplexing. Why is it that when our cognitive systems engage in visual and auditory information-processing, we have visual or auditory experience: the quality of deep blue, the sensation of middle C? How can we explain why there is something it is like to entertain a mental image, or to experience an emotion? It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does…The really hard problem of consciousness is the problem of experience. When we think and perceive there is a whir of information processing, but there is also a subjective aspect.

Broadly speaking, I agree with Shermer on the hard problem.   But I agree with an important caveat.  In my view, it isn’t so much that the hard problem is hopelessly unsolvable, it’s that there is no scientific explanation which will be accepted by those who are troubled by it.  In truth, while I don’t think the hard problem has necessarily been solved, I think there are many plausible solutions to it.  The issue is that none of them are accepted by the people who talk about it.  In other words, for me, this seems more of a sociological problem than a metaphysical one.

What are these plausible solutions?  I’ve written about some of them, such as that experience is the brain constructing models of its environment and itself, that it is communication between the perceiving and reflexive centers of the brain and its movement planning centers, or that it’s a model of aspects of its processing as a feedback mechanism.

Usually when I’ve put these forward, I’m told that I’m missing the point.  One person told me I was talking about explanations of intelligence or cognition rather than consciousness.  But when I ask for elaboration, I generally get a repeat of language similar to Chalmers’ or that of other philosophers such as Thomas Nagel, Frank Jackson, or others with similar views.

The general sentiment seems to be that our phenomenological experience simply can’t come from processes in the brain.  This is a notion that has long struck me as a conceit, that our minds just can’t be another physical system in the universe.  It’s a privileging of the way we process information, an insistence that there must be something fundamentally special and different about it.  (Many people broaden the privilege to include non-human animals, but the conceit remains the same.)

It’s also a rejection of the lessons from Copernicus and Darwin, that we are part of nature, not something fundamentally above or separate from it.  Just as our old intuitions about Earth being the center of the universe, or of us being separate and apart from other animals, are not to be trusted, our intuitions formed from introspection, from self reflection, a source of information proven to be unreliable in many psychology studies, should not necessarily be taken as data that need to be explained.

Indeed, Chalmers himself has recently admitted to the existence of a separate problem from the hard one, what he calls “the meta-problem of consciousness”.  This is the question of why we think there is a hard problem.  I think it’s a crucial question, and I give Chalmers a lot of credit for exploring it, particularly since in my mind, the existence of the meta-problem and its most straightforward answers make the answer to the hard problem seem obvious: it’s an illusion, a false problem.

It implies that neither the hard problem, nor the version of consciousness it is concerned about, the one that remains once all the “easy” problems have been answered, exist.  They are apparitions arising from a data model we build in our brains, an internal model of how our minds work.  But the model, albeit adaptive for many everyday situations, is wrong when it comes to providing accurate information about the architecture of the mind and consciousness.

Incidentally, this isn’t because of any defect in the model.  It serves its purpose.  But it doesn’t have access to the lower level mechanisms, to the actual mechanics of the construction of experience.  This lack of access places an uncrossable gap between subjective experience and objective knowledge about the brain.  But there’s no reason to think this gap is ontological, just epistemic, that is, it’s not about what is, but what we can know, a limitation of the direct modeling a system can do on itself.

Once we’ve accounted for capabilities such as reflexive affects, perception (including a sense of self), attention, imagination, memory, emotional feeling, introspection, and perhaps a few others, essentially all the “easy” problems, we will have an accounting of consciousness.  To be sure, it won’t feel like we have an accounting, but then we don’t require other scientific theories to validate our intuitions.  (See quantum mechanics or general relativity.)  We shouldn’t require it for theories of consciousness.

This means that asking whether other animals or machines are conscious, as though consciousness is a quality they either have or don’t have,  is a somewhat meaningless question.  It’s really a question of how similar their information processing and primal drives are to ours.  In many ways, it’s a question of how human these other systems are, how much we should consider them subjects of moral worth.

Indeed, rewording the question about animal and machine consciousness as questions about their humanness, makes the answers somewhat obvious.  A chimpanzee obviously has much more humanness than a mouse, which itself has more than a fish.  And any organism with a brain currently has far more than any technological system, although that may change in time.

But none have the full package, because they’re not human.  We make a fundamental mistake when we project the full range of our experience on these other systems, when the truth is that while some have substantial overlaps and similarities with how we process information, none do it with the same calibration of senses or the combination of resolution, depth, and primal drives that we have.

So getting back to the original question, I think we can have a scientific understanding of consciousness, but only of the version that actually exists, the one that refers to the suite and hierarchy of capabilities that exist in the human brain.  The version which is supposed to exist outside of that, the version where “consciousness” is essentially a code word for  an immaterial soul, we will never have an understanding of, in the same manner we can’t have a scientific understanding of centaurs or unicorns, because they don’t exist.  The best we can do is study our perceptions of these things.

Unless of course, I’m missing something.  Am I being too hasty in dismissing the hard-problem version of consciousness?  If so, why?  What about subjective experience implies anything non-physical?

Posted in Mind and AI | Tagged , , , , , , , | 190 Comments

Recommendation: Children of Time

The Fermi Paradox is the observation that if intelligent life is pervasive in the universe, it should have arrived on Earth ages ago, but there is no evidence it ever did.  The solutions to the paradox include the possibilities that interstellar travel is impossible (or so appallingly difficult that no one bothers), that there is something out there suppressing the development of intelligent life, or that intelligence capable of symbolic thought and technological development is profoundly rare in the universe.

There’s a new model which lends credence to the last possibility.  Looking at chemical and genetic pathways, this model predicts that we may be the only technological civilization in the observable universe.  I’ve written before on the reasons to think that our nearest intelligent neighbors may be cosmically distant.  Life appears to have started early in Earth’s history, but intelligent life took billions of years to emerge, and only did it once, at least so far.  And its development seemed highly dependent on a large number of low probability events throughout Earth’s evolutionary history.

So the common science fiction trope of us encountering an alien intelligence may never happen.  If we meet other intelligent entities, it seems far more likely they’ll be ones we created rather than ones who evolved independently.  These might be technological AI (artificial intelligence) or they might be animal species we “uplifted”, that is, genetically modified to be more intelligent than evolution made them.

Cover of Children of TimeAt the beginning of Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Time, humans have begun terraforming a number of exoplanets for eventual habitation.  On one of these planets, the egotistical and misanthropic Doctor Avrana Kern plans to uplift a species of monkey.  The idea is to release the monkeys on a terraformed planet with lots of Earth life (including most animal species) along with a virus to guide the monkeys’ rapid evolution into sapience.  Eventually they would be guided by a scientist left behind in orbit, all in order for them to be ready to help human colonists when they eventually arrive.

But the scientist recruited for the guidance role turns out to be a religious fanatic who destroys the scientific mission, killing all the scientists and the monkeys.  Only the arrogant Kern herself survives, trapped in orbit, stuck in the guidance role she envisioned for another.  The uplift virus does get delivered into the planet’s biosphere, but without the monkeys it will have unforeseen consequences.  Shortly afterward, Kern loses all contact with humanity, receiving just enough clues to deduce that human civilization has destroyed itself in war.

Across the millenia, the virus, engineered to avoid working in mammalian species other than the monkeys it was programmed for, begins working in arthropod species, particularly spiders.  Gradually the spiders evolve into an intelligent species and begin building a civilization.  Eventually they realize that there is a Messenger in the Sky (in actuality the trapped scientist Avrana Kern, who has by now effectively merged with the AI managing her craft) and begin worshiping it.

Meanwhile on Earth, after several thousand years, civilization has slowly begun to recover, but the Earth is damaged by the previous wars, poisoned by biological weapons left behind from the war.  It gradually becomes apparent to this new civilization, still a technological shadow of the old one, that the poisoning has doomed them to eventual extinction.  In desperation, they send out colonization sleeper ships to the terraformed worlds.

One of these ships, the Gilgamesh, has Kern’s world as its destination.  But when they arrive, they encounter a now deranged Kern who successfully chases them away with superior technology.  But not before they’re able to see a world that has been successfully terraformed, albeit one inhabited by “monsters” (the spiders).  They leave, but both they and Kern know their options are limited, and that they’ll be back.

Two story threads then run in parallel, one of the spiders and their climb into a civilization that may be able to protect their world from invaders, and another of humans desperately attempting to survive in space, preparing for what they hope will be a successful return to claim Kern’s world for their own.

This book explores a lot of philosophical concepts, such as humanity’s apparent need to always be at war with itself, the nature of religion, and the plausibility of uploading minds.  It also explores how an arachnid species might see the world, and how this worldview might affect the technologies and civilization it develops.  Attempted communications between the species show just how alien an intelligent arachnid species might be, even when it’s descended from the same biosphere as humanity.

The book is also a gripping story.  On the human side, the story is told from the point of view of Holsten Mason, a classicist on the Gilgamesh familiar with the history of the old destroyed civilization, who is often able to compare it with what he sees happening with his own society.  The Gilgamesh has received no signals from the other colony ships.  They appear to be the only surviving one, effectively making them humanity’s last chance, raising the stakes to survival of the species.

My only real gripe with this side of the story is that fuel, and the related logistics, are never mentioned.  The interstellar sleeper ship (and eventually generation ship), the Gilgamesh, is apparently limited to a cruising velocity of 10% light speed.  The reasons for a limit like that in space always come down to fuel efficiency.  Yet there is never any discussion of finding fuel for the ship when it’s in a solar system.  But this is really just a pet peeve on my part, a reaction to a common failing in space opera.  In fairness, Tchaikovsky mostly steers clear of discussing the drive technologies on the ships (except toward the end), so he does leave conceptual room for these issues to be handled behind the scenes.

On the spider side, Tchaikovsky, using an omniscient narrator, provides human names to the spiders, such as “Portia”, “Bianca”, and “Fabian”, while making it clear that these are placeholders for a species that communicates with vibrations made by their legs on web strands, for actual names that would be utterly alien to humans.  The human names are reused for various spiders with similar personalities throughout their civilization’s history.  The effect is that it provides a semblance of continuity in the narrative that actually works fairly well.

The book won the British Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel, and has received wide acclaim.  Lionsgate is reportedly working on a film adaptation, although I wonder how they plan to handle the spiders.  The alien nature of the spiders works in the book because the story is told somewhat from their perspective, but it seems like a movie would have to make significant compromises.  It will be interesting to see how it’s handled.

Anyway, if you like hard(ish) space opera, and don’t mind reading a story with significant portions told from an alien perspective, I highly recommend this book.  In some ways, it reminded me of Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, which also has a spider civilization in it, although Vinge’s spiders are true aliens, as well as the movie Battle for Terra, which has a conflict between desperate humans and a native species on their target world.  Children has enough original material that it never feels derivative, but if you enjoyed those other stories, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

Posted in Science Fiction | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

The soul of the Roman Empire

Map of the Roman Empire at its greatest extent

The Roman Empire at its greatest extent
Image credit: Tataryn vis Wikipedia

According to tradition, in the early days of ancient Rome, King Numa Pompilius established a religious institution: the Vestal Virgins.  The Vestal Virgins were chaste priestesses of Vesta, the goddess of home and hearth.  Their duty was to maintain the sacred flame in the temple of Vesta.  The Romans believed that as long as the sacred flame was maintained, Rome would prosper, but that if it should ever be untended, it would lead to Rome’s destruction.  The rites of the Vestal Virgins were faithfully maintained throughout the centuries.

Until 394 CE, when on order of the Christian emperor Theodosius, those rites were discontinued and the virgin priestesses dismissed.  For many pagans living at the time, this abandonment of an ancient order, along with the associated forsaking of the ancient gods of Rome, were why the western empire fell on hard times in the 400s CE, eventually collapsing completely by 476.  Rome in particular was sacked by 410.  (Don’t get too spooked by this.  Rome was also sacked much earlier in its history in 387 BCE, presumably despite the efforts of the Vestal Virgins.)

Since then, there have been many theories about why the western empire fell.  Of course, one plausible narrative is that the empire’s external enemies simply became strong enough to collectively overwhelm it.  Under this narrative, the invasion of the Huns in Europe was pivotal, along with the pressure the Eastern Empire was under from the Sasanian Empire that prevented it from sending aid to the west.  In this view, the fall of the Western Empire is more about the ferocity of the Huns than anything else.

But there’s always been a sense that the empire rotted from within.  Much of the speculation about the fall looks at events in the empire going as far back as its founding in 27 BCE.  But looking at developments in the first, second, or third centuries, when the empire continued to function for centuries afterward, has long struck me as little more than an excuse to indulge in moral grandstanding.  Often this type of speculation says more about those doing it than anything about ancient history.

The fact is that the Roman Empire was never an ideal state.  From the beginning it was a military dictatorship that lurched from one succession crisis to another, often resulting in civil war.  On many occasions the empire fragmented among multiple leaders proclaimed emperor by their local legions.

The real question isn’t what caused the empire to fall, but how it managed to hold together through all of these crises.  Civic virtue doesn’t appear to be what held it together.  Some other quality was important.  Something that must have changed in the later part of its history.  (At least in the western half.  The external enemy narrative seems more compelling for the Eastern Empire’s later fall in 1453 CE.)

I think through much of its history, there was a sense in the empire that it was civilization, while the rest of the world was alien and barbaric, or maybe that the Greco-Roman civilization was the only one worth having.  Perhaps another way of saying this is that the culture of the empire was very different from the neighboring regions.  This distinction between the empire and its neighbors, this shared identity, may have been enough, despite frequent upheavals, for the people of the empire to repeatedly piece it back together again.

Until the century from 376 to 476 CE.  During that period, the Western Empire lost control of its borders and countryside, and long before its “official” fall in 476, ceased to be an effective state.  What changed?

I think the answer is Christianity.  Now, this isn’t a polemic against the Christian faith.  Contrary to what Edward Gibbon and others might have thought, I doubt there was anything in the Christian doctrine* beliefs in the afterlife or ethics that, in and of itself,  weakened the empire.  To counter that suggestion, we only have to look at all the successful Christian societies that have existed since then, including for many centuries, the Eastern Empire (aka the Byzantine Empire).

But I think there are a couple of important aspects of Christianity worth considering.  The first is that it was exclusive.  To be a Christian was to forsake all other gods and religions.  (Early Christians were often called “atheists” by their pagan contemporaries because they denied all but one of the gods.)  That was unusual in the ancient world.  Most pagan religions didn’t really care whether you worshiped other gods.  The only other known religion that did was Judaism.

But Judaism didn’t share the second important aspect of Christianity, its evangelistic nature.  Christianity was both exclusive and expansionist, a faith that encouraged adherents to find converts, one that saw its mission as bringing as many people into the fold as possible.  This combination meant that every time Christianity gained a convert, paganism lost an adherent.  In other words, these aspects of Christianity is what made pagan religions easy pickings for it.

Contrary to traditional Christian narrative, there was nothing miraculous in the spread of Christianity.  Bart Erhman in his book, The Triumph of Christianity, points out that it only took a modest growth per year, compounded across centuries, for Christianity to become a substantial minority of the empire’s population by the end of the third century with millions of adherents.

Prior to that period, the empire had never persecuted Christians in any consistent sustained manner, but that changed in the closing decades of that century.  Until then, Christianity had been an oddball fringe cult, but its growth was bringing it increasingly into mainstream society, along with a perception of its threat to the traditional cults.  The persecutions in these decades, under the emperor Diocletian, would become known as the Great Persecution.

Students of history know that the persecutions ended in 313 CE under the first Christian emperor, Constantine.  For a few decades, the empire was more or less tolerant of multiple faiths.  But in the latter part of the fourth century that started to change, perhaps as a reaction to the last pagan emperor who tried to reverse Christianity’s ascent.  As the number of Christians increased, the empire became increasingly intolerant of paganism, culminating in emperor Theodosius declaring Christianity to be the only legitimate religion in 380 CE.

The roles from a century earlier were now reversed.  Paganism found itself persecuted, and engaged in a losing cultural battle.  According to Erhman, by 400, half the empire was Christian.  But the other half remained pagan.  Consider what this must have done to the society, what the consequences must have been for its social cohesion.

And Ehrman points out that the western half of the empire was actually behind the east in its conversion rates.  In other words, there were more pagans in the west, indicating that proclamations of Christianity as the only legitimate religion were probably far more traumatic there than in the east.

Finally, consider that Christianity had already spread across the borders into the Germanic tribes.  This meant that when those (Christian) tribes were fleeing the Huns, looking for refuge inside the borders of the empire, many Christians within the empire may have felt more affinity with them than with Roman pagans.  The cultural distinction between the empire and its neighbors, along with the shared identity, at least in the west, was no more.  (There remained a strong cultural distinction in the east, particularly after the rise of Islam, which may be why it endured for another millenia.)

Of course, this is admittedly speculation on my part.  One of the problems with talking about the cause of a civilization’s collapse, is that a society’s decline and fall is usually not a time when detailed and careful records are kept.  Ultimately, we may never know the real reason.  Indeed, it’s almost certainly wrong to talk in terms of any one reason when there were probably a multitude of causal factors.  But this explanation strikes me as more plausible than most I’ve heard.

Or we could just blame the Huns.

* Edited wording to address Steve Ruis’ point in the comments.

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