Cold Embrace: So You Want To Build A Universe 02 and Character Gallery 03

The urban and neon jungle

The urban and neon jungle

One of the most important things about a fictional universe, and one that most writers, to their detriment, take for granted, is the social and cultural background you portray your characters in. Writers that work within the strict boundaries of modern-day realism are excused – as published authors write for their present-day audience first, and merely hope that they might get famous enough to be considered classic (something like 95% of writers are never published again after their deaths), such writers can assume that the reader, especially the readers of their own culture, don’t need to be told, for example, how a TV operates, or why Britney Spears is a bit of a farce these days.

Unfortunately, a lot of science fiction writers fall into the same trap. Not the technology – I’ve yet to find a scifi writer that won’t enthusiastically ramble on for ten pages at a time about the hows and whats of their starship’s FTL drive. Hell, I do the same easy enough. But remember that technology is only as interesting as the social context it is used in! The language of the everyman, the cultural assumptions that drive the whens and whys of their use. A wrench can be an important part of one’s emergency kit, closing the gas lines during an emergency, or a murderer’s weapon, its head stained a dark, inky crimson by the vicious beating it had rend upon the victim’s skull… or just a lump of oddly shaped metal in the hands of a curious toddler as her dad fumbles around the underside of the family’s derelict car.

The reality of a thing isn’t just the physical form it has, and the elemental properties it contains. The reality of a thing is dependent on who controls it… and why.

They're staring at you...

They're staring at you...

UNCANNY VALLEY

By the last decade of the twentieth century, humankind’s ability to mimic itself has already gotten… creepily good. With emphasis on creepy. HEAVY emphasis. The infamous “uncanny valley” is a theoretical range in which a human form, especially a human face, gets amazingly close to lifelike… but the closer we got, the creepier they looked. While general, almost abstract, impressions generates a level of familiarity in something alien, the familiar made even slightly alien triggers some sense of primal alarm.

By the start of the twenty-first century – literally just a few years later – sculptors and graphic designers have broken straight through that valley. It was, in the end, merely a trivial problem of detail, time, and sophistication of equipment, and the momentum of technological advance that had defined the prior century showed no signs of stalling out at this stage.

Of course, little was done about it afterwards. The detail and sophistication required to create what was ultimately and simply a stunningly lifelike human toy was initially the concern of only Hollywood and the sex toy industry. The usage of robots in a socially interactive environment had not yet become a reality – mainly because, while we’ve bridged the uncanny valley of appearance, semi-autonomous two-legged movement and convincing speechmaking are much, much larger technical hurdles. Whether it be an online video help session’s portrayal of a receptionist, an AR simulant, a robot or whatever else, looking like human proved a much simpler problem than acting like human.

And the uncanny valley strikes again, as the closer we got to human action mimicry, the creepier and creepier they looked, raising the question of whether or not we should develop human mimics in the first place. While the theological fight over it has carried the most media attention, the true concern over human mimicry is that the theoretical Perfect Android will be completely indistinguishable from anybody out on the streets, but have cognitive and physical abilities far in excess of human limits.

It all boils down to whether or not we truly want to be able to define the limits of “what is Human…”

Saya Aikawa

Age: 21

Sex: Female

Occupation: Voice actress, lab tech

Personality: Optimist, cheerful, curious

Appearance: A skinny, short girl at 157 cm, and probably the only secretary in all of Japan with calf-length green hair, usually done up in a flowing ponytail.

Background: As a talented and rising voice actress… Saya still gets paid shit. No, really – voice acting is not a career you pursue in the interest of fortune or creature comforts. She is, however, quite a natural at it, and is slated for a starring role in Yet Another Light Novel Romantic Comedy Adaption. Add in her day job as the secretary of her live-in boyfriend’s boss, a laid-back individual more concerned about research than appearance (though, given university politics, Not To Be Trifled With), and things are actually going pretty good for Saya.

Which is not to say that she doesn’t get habitually afflicted with nightmares from the massive wreck that took place on Tokyo’s bullet line, or that her short-term memory isn’t occasionally a bit spotty as a side-effect of the accident. Or even that she occasionally has moments of insecurity – the physical disparity between her boyfriend and herself gets not a few snide comments from housewives when they go out shopping. Heck, it isn’t just a Japanese thing – a nerdy, conservatively dressed neuroscientist going out with a punk chick without even a high school diploma to her name will elicit all sorts of looks anywhere.

But, heck. Everybody’s got problems, and Saya’s too good-natured to let them stop her for long.

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on February 16, 2009.

One Response to “Cold Embrace: So You Want To Build A Universe 02 and Character Gallery 03”

  1. where did you get the picture entitled “they’re staring at you…” (the “pixelated” heads on the wall)? who is the artist? i really want to know. thanks.

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