Monday, June 28, 2010

Inspired by Science

I write science fiction because I am inspired by science, the tool humans use to understand the workings of the universe, and how it impacts us as people.  It has been interesting to see how the stories I read as a kid growing up have turned into the news stories and facts of our lives today.  
Science fiction is a literary art.  I would say it is probably the one the general population is most familiar with when it comes to forms of creative expression inspired by science.  It is not the only one, however.  Other artists in other fields can find inspiration in our efforts to understand our world.  Here are a few examples I thought you might find interesting.  
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie "Back to the Future II," was when the main character, Marty McFly, uses a 'hoverboard' to outrace a gang trying to blackmail him into helping them commit a crime.  We don't have working hoverboards yet.  But that didn't stop someone from making one for himself.  
It what he calls a 'study in sculpture and experiment in spatial autonomy,' French artist Nils Guadagnin has built a working replica of the Back to the Future hoverboard.  It uses electromagnets to float above the surface of its pedestal and a laser to stabilize its position.  It can't bear the weight of a person, but the system is pretty good at keeping the sculpture in place.  Click on this link to check out a video of the work.  

Lisa Randall is a theoretical physicist at Harvard University specializing particle physics and cosmology.  Her book, "Unraveling the Mysteries of the Universe's Hidden Dimensions" was named one of the New York Times' 100 notable books of 2005.  Her book alone would make her a person any science fiction writer or fan of science ought to know about.  But Dr. Randall took the further step of turning her scientific work into a work of art.
"Hypermusic Prologue: A Projective Opera in Seven Plans" is a one hour experimental opera that had its premiere at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in June of 2009.  Based on Dr. Randall's work on hidden dimensions, she wrote the libretto for the opera as well, it is the story of a character who explores the unseen dimensions that affect the four dimensional reality wee see around us.  Hector Parra, a Spanish composer who is the son of a physicist and who has written works influenced by particle physics, wrote the score for the opera.  The music is altered to signal changes in energy, mass, time and gravity.  For example, as the explorer, played by the soprano, enters a gravitationally strong part of the universe her voice is electronically altered to make her phrases shorter in increments that are mathematically precise.  Dr. Randall has been quoted as saying that creating the opera, "has a little bit to do with why I do science and why I think there's more out there."  It's the same sense that there is something missing, she goes on to say, that drives her that she finds in the people she's met in creative fields.  
The "Art of Science" Gallery has at the top of its hope page a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: "Study the science of art and the art of science."  The exhibition is set up to explore the interplay science and art, and to give record to those moments when "what perceives suddenly becomes more than the sum of its parts."  Each year the gallery picks a different theme, and then chooses work that best reflect that theme.  The theme for 2010 was "Energy."  The 45 pieces reflect that theme in the broadest sense.  They are not pieces of art for art's sake, but are striking images that were produced in the course of scientific study.  The Art of Science Gallery has links for previous exhibits going back to 2005.  
While writing this blog and picking these examples, I was reminded of a couple of my own experiences.  
The first one is a personal observation that has influenced my own work.  As I've noted in previous blogs, I have written several scripts for comic book stories.  When I first started working in the field of visual story telling I noticed something about how my creative partner at the time worked.  While we were having lunch together, I noticed him drawing an image of one of the characters in our story sitting down and having lunch as well.  I pointed out to him that the character never had a pose like that in the script I had give him.  
"I know," he replied, continuing to work on the image.  "I just wanted to see what she'd look like sitting like this."  He went on to explain that it was a common practice for him, and other artists he knew, to create a notebook of sketches when working on a character showing them doing all manner of things, even if the piece they were trying to produce didn't require those actions or poses.  This helped them become more familiar with the character and better able to imagine whatever it was the script required of them to draw.  
Since that time, I started keeping a separate document, my Word Palette I call it, on any story that I'm working on.  I use the Word Palette as a place to mix words together about the character.  Lines of dialogue, descriptions, opening passages and written down and rewritten, even if they aren't going to be in the final story.  It's where I work out all the aspects of the characters and plot before I actually start writing the 'real thing.'  I also use the Word Palette while writing the story itself.  If I find myself blocked,  unable to see how to get the character through a moment for instance, then I switch over to the Word Palette and start writing about the scene.  I'll ask myself questions, I'll try different versions of the passage, I'll go back and rewrite what came before to get a running start in the direction I want to go.  The purpose is to 1) Keep Writing and not sit there staring at the screen and the blinking cursor challenging me to put something there and 2) free up my mind and refocus it on what the character's dilemma is and how he/she is struggling to overcome it.  Once I break through the blockage, I will cut whatever is useful from the World Palette, paste it into the story document, and keep going.  Since using this method I've not had an incident of what I would call writer's block.  
The second experience was that of a story I had read some time ago.  Unfortunately I don't recall the name of the story or where I read it.  It may have been an entry in one of the Writers' of the Future contests some years ago.  
The basic idea of the story revolves around an alien artifact found buried in an asteroid orbiting our own sun.  The asteroid is quarantined after the military explores the artifact.  The soldier that explored the artifact reports having a vision of horrific images of the Earth being invaded, billions of people killed and the planet being laid waste.  Clearly, the military concludes, the artifact is some sort of weapon that needs to be defused and studied.  
It turns out that the artifact is a work of art.  And like all great works of art, it reflects exactly what is inside the person observing it.  
Science is the tool to see what is there around us, while Art, in all its varied forms, is the means we use to express what is inside us.  When these two endeavors meet, interesting things are brought out.  
I sent a prologue to the editors at Angry Viking Press for SoftMetal, the comic I've written about previously that will be reprinted this summer.  From the artist I've received word that the publishers at Angry Viking are already asking for additional issues even before the first volume hits the stands.  This is encouraging news to me.  I'll relay more information as it comes to me.  

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Nifty Gadgets 2

One of the reason I like the 'nifty gadgets' being developed today is for the ideas they might spark for future stories, or for ideas to use in building the worlds in which my stories are set.  Sometimes though it takes more than the original gadget itself to make this happen.  It is when you combine two or more gadgets that funky ideas can be sparked.  For example...
Teleconferencing is a widely used tool in business today.  The ability to meet and talk with people anywhere in the world without leaving your office has numerous advantages. 
Telepresence and telerobotics, the ability to reach into environments to manipulate objects, particularly in environments that are dangerous or difficulty for people to go, has been used in deep ocean oil drilling, bomb disposal and medicine.   
Now, there is a company that combines these two technologies for the business world.  A company called "Anybots" has developed robots to allow you to 'commute' to any office where one of them is installed and then move independently through the office to meet, observe and interact with the people there.  Some of the advantages cited by the company on their website include: 
*The ability to join office conversations at any time without the need of going to the conference room.  
*Being able to see what's going on in the office and determine when would be a good time to approach people.  
*Create more 'face time,' even when you're not there, allowing people the opportunity to approach you with questions or suggestions they might not phone you about.  
To be frank, I'm not sure as to whether or not Anybots will take off.  While I think the concept is intriguing, I believe its implementation might be somewhat off-putting.  Will you really be apt to strike up a conversation with something that looks like an IT with a computer brain controlling it?  "Hey, boss...  I had an idea about the new product line.  Here, let my wipe your lens for you first."  And imagine how freaked out someone might be if they are typing away at their computer and look up to find this 'bot at the entrance to their cubicle watching them.  Definitely a creep-factor there.
Then, I read about another nifty gadget...
Optical Camouflage
The 'invisibility cloak' has long been a staple of science fiction and fantasy.  Phillip K. Dick is credited for being the first writer to use an 'active camouflage suit' by name in his 1974 novel, A Scanner Darkly.'  As described by Dick, the 'scramble suit' used a flexible sheath that covered the body coupled with a holographic lens on the user's head which transmitted the camouflage pattern to the sheath.  
There is ongoing research to create such a suit.  In 2003, professors at the University of Tokyo, one of whom started the company Tachi Lab, created a proof of concept system that used a video camera to film the scene behind one of their students wearing a coat made of reflective material and projecting that image on to the cloak.  While it didn't render the student completely invisible, it did demonstrate how such a system in the future could allow someone to literally blend into whatever scene an observer might be seeing.  
A functional camouflage suit is probably decades away.  There are applications of such technology that can be developed more quickly.  For instance, what if while driving your car you could have its interior 'disappear,' replaced with images of the area surrounding your vehicle?  There would be no blind spots to worry about before making lane changes or turns (though you would still have to look around your fellow passengers).  A surgeon wearing surgical gear made of such material could have his body disappear, leaving him an unobstructed view of his patient.  If applied to a building's interiors, you could look out on your backyard to watch your kids play, or make your front door invisible to see who is knocking while remaining behind solid walls from their perspectives.  And it wouldn't have to be a real time image that you see either.  If you enjoyed the view from the bungalow in Tahiti you rented on your last vacation, you could  surround yourself with it whenever you entered your bedroom.  Or you could indulge some exhibitionism by having the interior of your shower show you a jungle waterfall.  
It was while thinking about this last application of optical camouflage that I remembered the Anybot.  I then asked myself what would happen if you combined these two nifty gadgets.  If the Anybot was covered in a shroud that projected the image of the person using it, it might not be so strange to talk with it.  With advancements to the quality of the projection, we might reach a point where an observer might not realize that they were speaking with someone's bot.  
And with that thought came something of a 'mind-flip.'  Would combining personal robotic stand-ins with optical camouflage technology lead to our real world becoming more like the sort of networked experience we have online?  We already have multiple persona that we manage in the internet.  Facebook accounts, job networking sites, dating services, massive multiplayer online role-playing games, each of these services ask us to create accounts or 'avatars,' a name used by a company called Second Chance offering you a simulated life, sometimes with visual representations of ourselves, to interact with other people's accounts or avatars.  
Would robots with appearances that could be customized to whatever you wanted it to look like lead to us treating the real world in the same way we treat our online presence?  The answer to that question might be found in the answer to this one: How many times have you wished you could be in two places at once? 
Imagine: You wake up in the morning.  You glance at your alarm and realize you've overslept.  Damn!  You have to be a meeting going over new production procedures in three minutes.  
You run to your computer and activate your workplace bot.  You select a nice design for a suit by Armani that you picked out last weekend and project it on to the bot.  Optimizing its interaction protocols for recording, and setting an alarm to chime if called upon to speak, you send it to the conference room and leave a window open for it on your screen.  
Your calendar reminds you of a breakfast date with someone you met online.  She's in Paris on vacation and wanted to meet over coffee & croissants.  You rent a bot, use a image of yourself from last year, after you got back from that exercise camp, and send it walking along the Seine to the appointed cafe.  You make the window controlling that bot your main window, putting your meeting window right next to it.  
You then rent another bot in Chicago.  You got word that there's a company there opening a new production unit and contact from your job-search network got you an face to face interview.  You rent a high quality business bot in the same building as the company.  Fortunately the interview doesn't start until right after the meeting, so...
And so on...  Do I think we'll ever live like this?  I'm not sure.  I don't think so.  But then again, I didn't think I would have a group of 'friends' (via Facebook) a number of whom I have never met face to face.  What I do know is that the possibility of such a life does, in some form, exist.  And exploring it through fiction to see what it might say about how will deal with each other is something I want to do.  

News & Updates
I finished writing a rough draft for a new short this week.  I posted it to an online writing group I'm a member of for reviews and feedback.  The working title is 'Brother Like Me.'  It's based on an incident that happened to me when I was traveling in Japan where I met someone from another part of the world in a convenience story.  I tried to write it out in one 'splurge' to get it out before I over-thought it.  It has something to do with how we decide who out there is 'like us.'  This week I'll be working on rewriting a draft I finished a few weeks ago called 'Emil & Broombridge,' about a 'dive-pilot,' a pilot driving a ship using engineered hyperspheres, that is set in my Tauian Adventure universe.  I hope to start submitting it after that.  
I also finished an introduction for my comic 'SoftMetal' that will be coming out this summer and sent it to the publisher.  No word yet as to when it will be out.  I'll definitely post details here when I have them.  
Finally, I've decided to post my blog entries every other week, starting with this one.  I want to take more time researching my topics and figured extending the posting date by a week would allow me to do so.