Cold Embrace: So You Want to Build a Universe 01 and Character Gallery 02

The future, as always, lies in our skulls

The future, as always, lies in our skulls

The trick with writing science fiction is realizing that, for the most part, you’re writing science fantasy. The only difference between a wide-dispersion lasgun that turns the blast door to slag and a fireball wand that had just reduced the looming doors of the castle to so much burning splinter is that the former has more chrome plating. Space opera is oceanic adventures with – sometimes – a third dimension to the tactics. Hunting for the Precursor’s Relic so as to banish the fiends from beyond the edges of the Platonic universe isn’t so different from Belgarion’s quest for Aldur’s Orb.

Well, okay, that’s not the only difference.

Harlan Ellison painted a line, decades ago, between science fiction and speculative fiction. That line, I note, is so blurry and muddy so as to barely exist. But traces of it remains. There is a definite difference in tone from the grand-scale military adventures of Honor Harrington, the Salamander of Manticore, she of the missile swarms so dense the Spartans would agree it’d make a nice shade from two lightseconds out… and the furtive, clever, but quite grounded shenanigans of Charlie Stross’s trickster protagonists.

The difference is how much you need to tweak Reality to make it fit.

Cold Embrace is meant to be closer to speculative fiction than science fantasy. There are fantastical elements to it, and many underlying laws of its universe are strongly along the lines of transhumanist thought. But many of the technologies brought up in it are either within reach of today’s resources – assuming, in the case of the universe’s native robots, you had enough software engineers and time to hammer out the details – or rely on technology that is widely speculated upon by current scientists, and expected to come in a few decades. Or a few years. Or tomorrow.

Hope for scientific progress has never been a matter of optimism, but of historical precedence.


Already happening. As mentioned in a previous Thoughtscream, research into electronically emulating the neural structure of living creatures, especially mammals, is already on its way. A few years back, they’ve even developed a machine to strip away at a physical brain as efficiently as possible, allowing the full, unmitigated mapping of each physical node. We’re only a few years away from being able to simulate, say, a rat’s brain on a chip.

But if the transhumanists are right, and sentience is an emergent property of massively parallel processing, then we’re presented with an interesting ethical dilemma. Beyond the religious histrionics of “playing God,” do we give nonhuman sentients the full range of legal rights we give ourselves? Is it ethically acceptable to create something with the potential of sentience, but withhold it from whatever barrier, flimsy or daunting, separates it from being a massively useful calculator and a fully self-aware mind? And on the flip side, how do we deal with the finicky problem of electronic necromancy?

If, upon the moment of their death, you could upload the personality state of your beloved onto a computer, would you? Hell, would you want to be uploaded?

Is a copied mind the same as the original?


Asimov’s covered robotics so thoroughly, anything written about them in a science fiction standing is but an echo of his thoughts. In fact, robotics, in all of its imagined uses, might as well be science fact. Though we’ve only recently developed humanoid robots to act as servitors, our mechanical sciences are damn near fully mastered. Just look around you, and count the many dozens of moving, self-propelled parts around you, from the cars on the road to the scanner on your desk.

Japan is even moving to gear their labor force towards heavy robotics use, partially as an answer to their dwindling population, and partially because a robot, though initially expensive, is ultimately far, far more efficient than any human being can possibly be.

Of course, that’s a problem unto itself. A heavily robot-dependent economy might be able to overwhelm even China with relentless production, but what if everybody’s on a robot kick? Robots don’t take pay. Robots don’t buy food. Simple-sounding statements, yes, but consider an economy where the workers don’t participate in the consumption either.

If almost nobody’s working, then who’s buying?

The most dangerous thing in the world is the gift that keeps on giving. The development of modular, self-replicating fabricators, capable of creating nearly anything given the right raw materials, a hookup to the power grid, a CAD program, and maybe some nanoscale help, is the real world’s answer to the legendary horn of plenty. Even if we never get to the level of Charles Stross’s cornucopia boxes that litter the Eschaton’s universe, getting anywhere close is already an economist’s nightmare.

And a transhumanist’s wet dream.

Patrick Reinfeld

Age: 21

Sex: Male

Occupation: Professor

History: Pat was born hale, hearty, and with the genes and rearing of two distinguished scientists to give him an almost unfair edge on the world. Or he would have if the car accident on the way back from the hospital didn’t kill his mother and cripple him for life. The damages to his body were too severe for stem cell therapy to fully recover, and he has since spent most of his life bound in a wheelchair.

But physical limitations appeared to have been no major confinement for him. His mastery of mathematics and electronic engineering started young, and, with the nurturing of his father, refused to fade. His obsession with cybernetic technology has won him an eerie reputation amongst his schoolmates, but his sharp wit and relentless energy wins most people over.

Child geniuses aren’t all that rare anymore, since genetic filtering was approved in Europe, though his transfer to an American university, the distinguished Caltech, has made him a minor international celebrity, as the use of such technology remains controversial in the States. But if his genetic origin was controversial, his doctorate work on neural prostheses is doubly so – after eighteen years being bound to a wheelchair, Pat is now seen wandering around the campus on a pair of vividly realistic legs. The fruits of his mind-machine interface research.

He has since hinted that the results of that project has gone beyond mere mobility enhancement.


~ by Gonzo Mehum on February 7, 2009.

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