Thursday, March 15, 2018

Unintended consequences

Renowned astophysicist Stephen Hawking has died. At 76, he exceeded his life expectancy by over fifty years, having been diagnosed with ALS, a rare form of motor neuron disease, at age 21. I'm sure all of us have seen this small, hunched person contorted into a motorised wheelchair, giving his speeches through a disembodied computer voice.

I guess to me Stephen Hawking is the epitome of the triumph of mind over body - and, indeed, a cautionary tale. He's one of the greats of science, up there with Newton, Galileo, and Einstein.

He was much more than a theoretical physicist, though. He appeared on the Big Bang Theory, Star Trek, the Simpsons, and other popular shows, as well as giving academic lectures. It has been said he enjoyed his position as a famous scientist - but maybe he did these shows as much to make science accesible to people like me as anything else. Perhaps also to make a point that people with physical disabilities are not necessarily stupid. I like to think so.

I mourn his passing. But please let me share this wonderful piece of (pointed) humour. Do watch right to the end - you won't be sorry. Oh - and put your coffee down, first. You don't want it on your screen or your keyboard.

Professor Hawking actually had some influence on my science fiction, and how I think about some of the ways scientists delve into matters we don't know enough about. It's the eternal theme of SF, isn't it? Unintended consequences, such as taking  an alien life form on board the Nostromo.

Specifically, in my case, I wondered about manipulation of the human genome. Don't misunderstand - genetic modifications can often be very sensible if the intention is to eliminate a disease. But it's a delicate balance and there is still, always, a risk that taking something away might release something else, or take away more than just the disease. Just think. If a decision had been made to abort a foetus because it would develop motor neuron disease humanity would have lost an oustanding brain. Of course, if there's a specific gene for motor neuron and it had been elminated in vitro, Professor Hawkins would have had a much more comfortable life. But would he have had that amazing brain? It's a messy, grey area with so many 'what ifs'.

In one of my earliest books, Morgan's Choice, Morgan Selwood, who is a human cyborg, is discussing life and things with alien Admiral Ravindra. He and his people are gentically modified humans with some of our 'faults' specifically eliminated. Ravindra has found some sexually explicit images on Morgan's starship and is quizzing her about them.

"Look, same sex couples are tolerated in our society—where I come from, at least. It’s common in the Fleet. Boys locked together in an airtight cylinder, you know? Sure, there are women in the Fleet, but the men outnumber them, just as in your fleet, and some of the women prefer each other’s company, too. I had a friend at the Fleet Academy who was like that. When I first met her she carefully checked to see if I’d be interested in… her way of doing things. I wasn’t and after we got past that, we became friends. I was curious, though, because like you I find it all a bit odd. I looked up what information I could.
"A few centuries ago, there was a debate going on about what changes could be made to the human…" she wondered what the Manesa equivalent of ‘genome’ would be and gave up, "…to improve the species."
"You could do that?" interrupted Ravindra, eyebrows arched. But the look in his eyes signaled skepticism.
"Yes, we could—can. I take it you can’t?"
He frowned, stared at her as if he was trying to see into her soul. "Not that I know of." He waved his hand in a circular motion. "Continue."
"They started by making changes to the human genome to eliminate disease. The scientists isolated the genes they thought were responsible for certain conditions and modified them. They did a lot of that. That’s a good thing, sure. But, hey, it doesn’t always work quite so easily. You eliminate one thing and it affects something else where there was no obvious relationship. That was a problem for the same sex thing. The people who are that way don’t see it as an issue, and they weren’t happy at seeing their preferences called a disease. Eventually, after a lot of discussion it was agreed that the human structure would not be altered any further, but that children could be tested in the womb so that potential diseases could be eliminated in vitro. They say that humanity has adapted and changed and survived over the millennia and that if we play with our structure, we’ll jeopardize that resilience. Having said that, there are lots of Coalition planets where testing isn’t done at all."
"And yet you have been heavily modified, have you not?"
Oh, yes. Heavily modified. Even before she was born. "That’s because of the Cyber Wars."
"Which you will, of course, explain."
"The Cyber Wars ended about two thousand years ago. Humanity was on the verge of extinction. A problem with smart machines, you see."
"Like you?"
She bristled. "I am not a machine." Although he wouldn’t be the first person who thought so. "I… people like me… are a result of the Cyber Wars. Before the war, machines were being used to do all sorts of work that people used to do. It was cheap. Machines don’t need food, they don’t go on strike, make demands, want holidays. They took over in more and more jobs: working the fields, tending children, making goods for sale, designing things, building them and so on and so on. Running spaceships, controlling transit systems, buildings, you name it. The machines became smarter and smarter. Eventually, so the story goes, on the more advanced planets, they took over and flesh and blood people became inferior beings."
"And people like you took over."
"No. Shut up and listen." Uh-oh. Not the smartest thing to say, but it was what she would have said at home. She shot a lightning glance at him. One eyebrow lifted but he said nothing.
"What happened was that people were forced into poverty because machines did all the work. Those people rebelled and fought back against the machines and destroyed them. Millions, billions died just on the advanced planets. But that wasn’t the end of it. The smart machines had kept everything going so when they were destroyed there was disease and starvation on top of all the deaths that had happened already. Nobody knew how to keep the ordinary machines going anymore. Then people started killing each other in a struggle to survive. It became a self- perpetuating thing. Somebody got a disease on planet A and moved to planet B to start a new life, bringing the disease along for the ride. Or tribe A killed tribe B for the food they’d grown. Eventually, the survivors stopped fighting and started again. And the survivors, needless to say, were the primitive people on the backward worlds who knew how to farm."

Somewhere out in space, humanity’s past is about to catch up with its future.

When Morgan Selwood’s spaceship is stranded in unknown space she is relieved to be rescued by humanoid aliens. But her unusual appearance and her extraordinary technical abilities mean that everybody wants a piece of her. Who’s it to be? Autocratic Admiral Ravindra, who press-gangs her to help against a shadowy threat from the stars, or the freedom fighters who think she’s a legend reincarnated, returned to help them throw off the yoke of oppression?

Morgan doesn’t much care which it is until the uprising and the atrocities start. While civil war rages across the planet the shadowy threat from the stars emerges as an implacable killer bent on destroying all intelligent life. Morgan will need every bit of her superhuman, bio-engineered intelligence to save the man she has come to love and his people from annihilation. And spare a little to save herself.

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  1. Loved the Stephen Hawking video. I have not seen that before, but am perfectly familiar with the way some people treat the handicapped, or even the old.
    And Hawking made it into some of my own fiction as well, though only as a hero to a particularly bright character.

    Interesting article, and if anyone has not read 'Morgan's Choice,' I recommend it.

  2. Thanks, Marj. Yes, many people treat the handicapped and the old just as it was shown in that little video. Appearances can be deceiving.

  3. Wonderful tribute, Greta, and a nice touch of humor with the video. He will be missed.


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