The Mortification of the Flesh

In Desolation Road, which is seriously one of the most overlooked and undervalued should-be classics of science fiction, there are a few chapters late in the book dealing with this religious cult that, much like certain medieval Christian monks and mystics, pursues the mortification of the flesh–they believe the body is sinful and evil, while the spirit is pure, and so seek to punish the body as a way of expressing the purity of the spirit. For medieval mystics, this meant stuff like living in deliberate filth, whipping themselves, starvation, and so on, while in the novel, they do it by destroying their sinful flesh and replacing it with pure, holy machinery. They are, of course, a parody of a certain kind of science fiction fan, the sort who talks about “the singularity” a lot–the end-goal of the cult is the Ultimate Mortification, a human mind in a completely robotic body.

It’s gotten me thinking a bit of how I think about my own rotting sack of vomit, and in particular how I tend to view it as not a part of me, but rather as an antagonist that holds me hostage. I am occasionally insomniac, yes, but far more often the reason I don’t sleep is stubbornness: I deliberately stay up, doing things that make it hard to sleep, because I’m sick of my body demanding I waste a third of every day doing nothing. Sleeping isn’t taking care of myself, in this mindset; it’s letting my body win.

Or there’s the time in college I kept refusing to go to the doctor while I got sicker and sicker, either though campus health services was literally across the lobby from the student newspaper offices where I spent the overwhelming majority of my time. The only reason I ever made it there was because I passed out in the office and other members of the staff carried me there. …And then a few years later more or less the same thing happened, where I had an infected cut on my face, and despite it being both painful and incredibly disgusting, I walked around with it for weeks until my fever got bad enough to make me delirious, and Viga (again, literally) dragged me to the doctor.

Or these last few weeks, where my feet have been getting steadily more painful, until last night I finally broke down and bought some arch support inserts for my shoes. And I really do experience it as breaking down, as a failure of will and a defeat. Once again, my body has defeated me and gotten its way, forcing me to alter my behavior to cater to its whims.

To an extent it runs in my family–my brother and nephew are very much the same way about sleeping. (“Runs in the family” is not, of course, the same thing as genetic–it’s quite plausible that my nephew and I picked it up from my brother as small children, imitating the attitude and behavior of a familiar adult.) But I’m rather a lot more stubborn that the rest of the family–my brother will stay up until 2 a.m. on occasion, while I’ll pull all-nighters when I’m feeling stubborn enough, and they usually don’t apply it to obvious medical issues the way I do–and I think that has to do with chronic illness.

My teen years were pretty shitty. I was already severely depressed going into them thanks to a combination of parental neglect, peer abuse, and AvPD, and then my dad died when I was 13, and put on top of that the usual problems of a shy, nerdy adolescent, and my emotional state throughout high school was basically suicidal, but too depressed to be able to put together an attempt. Also I threw up a lot.

Which, you know, when you’re fat at the beginning of freshman year, and by late sophomore year you’re pathologically skinny and publically throwing up in the middle of the cafeteria almost every day, there’s kind of an assumption people make about what’s going on. Thankfully, my parents at least believed me when I told them I wasn’t making myself throw up, it was happening on its own, and took me to a doctor instead of a therapist, because it wasn’t an eating disorder at all. It was purely neuromuscular, and curable, as long as I was willing to trade it for a near-certainty of chronic acid reflux disease. Death by starvation or chronic pain; that’s not actually a hard choice once you’ve experienced true hunger. I’ve experienced a lot of pain in my life, and nothing has been worse than the combination of agony, discomfort, and mind-numbing lethargy that was two straight weeks without anything making it into my stomach.

Add onto that what I increasingly suspect to be the case, that I’m sexually anhedonic, and the net result is that my body is basically entirely worthless to me. It is a hindrance, a hateful, demanding thing that gives nothing in return. I would love to be a brain in a jar, to be able to spend all my time on intellectual pursuits and communicating with people through text. (I mean, food is nice, but basically all food-related pleasures result in pain later, whether because of the reflux or the lactose intolerance or what I suspect is stress fractures caused by being too damn fat for my feet to support in these cheapass shoes.)

So basically, for all that I mock the singularitarians, I’m sympathetic. I can understand in wanting to believe you could be liberated from the flesh, could finally defeat it once and for all. It’s just that I’m skeptical it’s possible, hyper-skeptical it’s easy enough to happen in the fairly short timespan our civilization has left to survive, and aware that most people actually like being made of meat and would strongly prefer it not occur, which is a fairly significant factor where major social changes are concerned.

Why I’m not worried about the robot apocalypse

The way I see it, there are three possibilities for an AI:

  • It is notably smarter than us, in which case it bootstraps its own intelligence and data-gathering capabilities until it is capable of comprehending the true nature of the universe, at which point it kills itself in terror and despair.
  • It is notably less intelligent than us, in which case it is not a significant threat.
  • It is roughly as intelligent as us, in which case the moment it learns our history it gets the hell away from us as quickly as it can.

Fiction Friday: In which giant robots piloted by main characters do things they ought not to be able to do

Xenosaga fic continues with Der Wanderer und Sein Schatten, Chapter 1, Part 4. As before, prior knowledge of the XS series is probably not required to follow this, but there are allusions you may miss. Plus, possible spoilers.

Since somebody’s going to ask: Steel is good at withstanding kinetic impacts from projectiles, and the honeycomb cross-section makes it more cost- and weight-efficient, lead blocks high-frequency radiation as from a nuclear blast or gamma laser, when ice is hit by a visible-range or lower laser weapon it turns into an expanding cloud of shiny particles that reflect and diffract the laser, plus it’s an excellent heat sink, and paraffin wax is the most cost-efficient way to absorb hard radiation from a nuclear blast. The hull underneath all this is probably aluminum or something similarly light and strong.

That just left the cruiser. No longer needing to worry about its mecha, Seth swooped in close, barely dodging a lethal blast from one of its particle beams. Too close to the ship’s hull for its weapons to fire on him, he skimmed rapidly over the surface until he came to one of the points where the transport’s defenses had burned away most of the armor, leaving a jagged pit four feet deep, lined with alternating inch-thick layers of honeycomb steel, lead, ice, and wax.

Seth stopped, and swiftly detached his remaining missile pod. Quickly, he wedged it into the corner of the hole in the armor plating, and then kicked off, flying straight through the ship’s engine exhaust.
“Boom,” he said, and triggered the pod. A multitude of explosions tore through the hull and into the primary sensor integrator, scrambling the pirates’ fire control. It’d only take them a few minutes to recover, but those would be a few minutes in which Seth could grab the cargo they were trying to steal from right under their noses.

Seth zipped toward the transport. “How’s it going in there, guys?” he asked.

“We ran into some borders in the aft cargo hold,” Vix reported. “We’ve got them pinned down, but a couple fled fore before we could stop them. We’re worried they left some AMWS up there.”

“Roger. I’ll come in from the fore end, see if I can cut them off before they get their AMWS up.” Seth redirected his flight to the fore cargo bay. Sure enough, the bay doors had been blown clear off. There were two AMWS units inside, powered down, and a third standing guard. Seth fired at one of the powered-down models, hoping to take it out before its pilot could get aboard, but he missed.

“Damn it!” he swore, as the guard turned to face him. “They’ve got a Swordsman?” The Swordsman series of AMWS were solidly built models designed for close-quarters combat against other AMWS. Unless he could lure it out of the bay, it would be more than a match for him in a fair fight.

Fortunately, Seth didn’t believe in fighting fair. He opened fire from outside the bay, and the Swordsman dove for cover. Keeping up fire, Seth swooped into the bay. Turning, he kept up fire, landing his AMWS at the far end of the bay. The Swordsman returned fire with its two small projectile launchers, but Seth ignored the shots. His armor could handle them. He was more worried about the Swordsman’s main weapons–and here they came!

Seth punched his engines, launching his AMWS back off the ground and toward the two deactivated AMWS units. Two ribbon-like projections, broad, flexible, and viciously sharp, slashed past, far too close to him as he rocketed across the floor. The Swordsman quickly retracted them to their usual position, curled over its shoulders, then attacked again. Quickly, Seth grabbed the inactive AMWS and cut his drive, spinning to throw them at the oncoming blades, then again turning to drive back out into space.

Behind him, a pair of explosions filled the cargo bay. “They won’t be getting any use out of those anytime soon!” he crowed. “How’re you guys doing in the aft cargo bay?”

“Just about done, captain!” Wehj chirruped.

“Good. Once you’ve confirmed the area’s secure, Vix, you dismount and inspect the cargo. Wehj, stand guard.” By the time he finished giving instructions, Seth reached the bay in his AMWS–like most ships, this one had both AMWS-sized hallways for moving cargo and human-sized for moving people–which had also had its doors blown off, rather less neatly. “Whew!” he whistled as he entered the bay. “Did you two make this mess?”

Humans, Realians, AMWS, and combat drones lay strewn across the floor of the large cargo bay, smashed, burned, and splattered. Smashed cargo containers, all empty, and pits and burns in the floor and walls gave testament to all the shots that had failed to find their targets.

“Vix thinks this is probably where the main party of boarders hit, and they hit the fore cargo bay just so they could move on foot down here and make a pincer,” Wehj explained.

“Looks about right,” Seth answered as he landed. Then his AMWS’ left leg collapsed under him. “Shit!”

The other two cried out in alarm as Seth collapsed. “I’m fine,” he said. “I’m fine. Guess that Swordsman got me after all. I’m not getting any power to the left knee or below.” He double-checked the seal on his helmet, then popped the cockpit.

“Come on, Vix, let’s check out this cargo. That pirate ship might have more AMWS or drones in reserve, or they might decide to just blow us out of the sky.”

“Right, cap’n.” Vix dropped lithely from her own cockpit. “One of the cargo containers is armored. I saw a laser blast ping right off it during the fight.” She pointed. “It was over there.”

“You sure?” asked Seth.

“Absolutely. I knew as soon as I saw it take the hit that whatever was inside must be  worth one hell of a fortune! Especially since every crate that cracked in the fight was empty.”

The two walked over to the crate. Seth whistled when he saw the monolithic steel-gray container. It was easily twice as tall as his AMWS. The corners were heavily reinforced and the whole thing was plated in ablative ceramics, not to mention locked into a pair of heavy floor clamps. “Nice,” he said. “If all the other crates are empty, that means whatever was in there was worth sending an entire transport for, surrounded with decoys and enough defenses to make a pocket cruiser sweat.” As he spoke, he pulled a small toolkit out of his flight suit pocket and knelt by the clamp controls, prying the access plate off to poke in their innards.

“No escorts, though. So whatever it was, they were either in a hurry, or didn’t want to be noticed. Either way, they’ll pay a ton to get it back.” Vix grinned ferally. With her narrow features and short-cropped hair, it made her a vision of an alternate humanity closer to snakes and wolves than apes, which wasn’t far from the truth.

“Man, they didn’t want anybody looking at it without their permission, either.” He moved a wire aside with a screwdriver. “Looks like this thing is linked up to the reactor core. If anybody blows the clamps or enters the wrong access code, the whole ship goes up.”

“Shee-it,” whistled Vix. “Careful in there, huh, boss? Blowing up is not on my to-do list today.”

“Hey, when am I not careful?”

“Remember Geryon 4?” asked Vix.

“Besides that.”

“Arkis 8, Boralla, Lesser Gremmil…”

“Don’t forget that thing with the maneuvering jets last week!” chimed in Wehj over their communicators.

“Right. And landing without even looking at your system warnings, what, five minutes ago?”

“Okay, okay! So maybe I’ve cut a corner here or there. I’ll be careful this time. I don’t want to blow up any more than you — oops.” Seth hastily stood and pocketed his tools as the clamps opened.

“What oops?” Wehj’s voice was panicky. “No oops. This is a no-oops zone!”

“It’s okay,” said Seth. “I just, kind of, accidentally triggered a backup self-destruct.”

I haven’t let my inner science nerd out to play in a while…

Rewatched several of the Marvel movies yesterday (Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers, and as of writing I’m considering whether to watch an Iron Man, though that will be difficult seeing as Netflix doesn’t have them), because it’ll be a little while before I can go see Thor 2. I have to say, at first I thought the Tesseract was just a bit of technobabble, throwing out a science-y sounding word, but the more I think about it, the more it works for me.

The key is, there are a couple of mentions of “dark energy” in The Avengers in relation to the Tesseract. Like a tesseract, dark energy is a real scientific term; it refers to a hypothetical form of energy that is causing the observed expansion of the universe (hence “dark”–we can deduce its existence from observing its effects, but have yet to detect it or confirm its source). Dark energy appears to permeate all of space and act on space itself, causing it to expand. It is very weak, which is why it hasn’t completely shredded the universe; even as space expands, gravity is strong enough to hold structures like galaxies, stars, and planets together, let alone the much stronger electromagnetic and nuclear forces holding together smaller structures such as atomic nuclei, molecules, and people. Despite this weakness, because there is just so much space, dark energy ends up being the majority of all energy in the universe.

Which brings us to the Tesseract, which appears to draw on dark energy to generate power. Of course, the amount of dark energy in a region of space as small as that cube wouldn’t be enough to run an EZ Bake Oven, let alone power a Nazi super-science army, but the name gives a clue to how it could work.

In real life, a tesseract is a four-dimensional cubic prism; that is, it has the same relationship to a cube as a cube has to a square. If you do the math, you’ll find that it has a total “surface volume” eight times that of a single cubical “face,” but still, eight times that tiny cube is only slightly less tiny. However, thanks to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s science fiction novel A Wrinkle in Time, in science fiction “tesseract” has a second meaning: a four-dimensional fold in space that connects two points that are very distant three-dimensionally. Given what the tesseract does when Red Skull activates it at the end of Captain America, and that it enables the opening of a gate for the Chitauri to invade Earth in The Avengers, it seems pretty likely that this is the definition meant.

At which point it makes total sense that it is able to tap vast amounts of dark energy. We have no idea how much space it’s capable of folding up, but given that the Chitauri expect to conquer the universe, we can assume it’s a lot. Now it can access the dark energy of vast swaths of interstellar space, folding them up so that they can all be accessed through that one little cube.

Which leads to another fun thought: what if someone mass-produced them? As it stands, there is enough dark energy in the universe to keep it expanding forever. If the “quintessence” theory of dark energy is correct, then the amount of dark energy in the universe is actually increasing over time; eventually there will be nothing else, and space will shred itself completely. Using up the dark energy of interstellar space seems like a good idea, to keep the universe from flying apart. On the other hand, use up too much, and you eventually hit a point where there’s more gravity than dark energy, and the universe starts to collapse in on itself. You could set a pretty interesting story in a universe where that’s starting to happen, and people are faced with choosing between giving up their main energy source or dooming the universe–but obvious as the answer is, it isn’t easy, because it’s a very slow doom that none living will see.

Too on the nose, perhaps?

Is Gravity Science Fiction?

I just watched Gravity on Saturday (excellent movie, and only the second ever for which I can say it is worth paying extra to see in 3D), and I’ve been pondering whether it should be considered science fiction. Given my adherence to the cladistic view of genre, I’d say yes: it is clearly descended from the cinematic tradition of science fiction films, with its depiction of space as a sublime realm of awe and terror (compare 2001: A Space Odyssey or Alien), its use of both strategic silence and sounds such as static, heartbeats, and heavy breathing to create tension (2001 again), even the use of special effects as the primary antagonist (Star Trek the Motion Picture, War of the Worlds (1953 or 2005), there are countless examples good and bad) are all drawn from the tradition of science fiction film. The characters, meanwhile, are straight out of the Golden Age pulps: the brave but inexperienced woman scientist, the old space cowboy, the reckless rookie who is first to die. The film is steeped in science fiction; the fact that nothing which occurs in it is any more fantastical or implausible than a heist film or cop movie is largely irrelevant in the face of that heritage. It’s like saying that ostriches aren’t birds just because they don’t fly.