Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Do electric sheep dream of androids?

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fantasy, space aliens

Just so you'll know, to me science fiction crosses the line into fantasy once the imagined universe becomes peopled with a myriad of alien species; the author can just produce species at will, with any attributes desired. This is all-too-similar to the fantasy writers' tendency to throw in a new magic spell or magical creature to solve any narrative problem that comes along.

In this regard, John Scalzi's restraint in The Android's Dream is commendable. Only Takk, the tough-guy alien that eats by engulfing humans (et cetera) whole, who suddenly reveals a spiritual side, seems to smack of ad-hocracy. But I'll give the author the benefit of the doubt; maybe he designed Takk that way from the beginning.

Early in the novel, the book's title is seen to refer to a genetically-engineered sheep, with electric-blue wool, a breed named The Android's Dream. Since it is mentioned that the name is a literary reference (not otherwise explained), it becomes clear that the initial story idea is a riff on Philip K. Dick's 1968 robot-ethics masterpiece Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.

I need to develop a "creative index" for novels. Were I to do so, the aggregate of plot twists, fresh ideas and tangled relationships among the characters would put this near the top of the list. Just a few of the ideas:

  • Genetic engineering that goes beyond the mere production of a blue sheep, to hiding the sheep's genome in a person's DNA.
  • While a millennias-old multi-species galactic society is rather old hat, I think the Common Confederation is extremely well named. Other than a common court of adjudication for certain cases, it seems to keep its hands off, even allowing member species to war among themselves.
  • A bit of "new law" that allows one very specific individual to become a new "Nation"...based on a Talmudic puzzle.
  • A religion whose origin is very similar to that of Scientology, but with an interesting twist. The accepted poetic "scripture" is known to be nonsense, but devotees are enamored of its endearing style and determine to fulfill its seeming prophecies. Of course, the plot culminates on the fulfillment of a most unlikely prophecy.
  • A couple of true AI entities, based on brain scans, modeling real brains (You know I find this unlikely; a brain alone won't do. It needs the chemical environment of the body. The software must also simulate pituitary, adrenal, and all other hormones, plus perhaps the immune system).
I just have to comment that interaction with aliens may be very hazardous for biochemical reasons. My post Alien Hybrids? from October 20, 2005 outlines why hybridization between species that arose on different solar systems is very, very (about 70 veries) unlikely, just based on about 10^73 different DNA genetic codes. The fact that our proteins use only 20 of the several hundred known amino acids makes it even less likely that proteins will be compatible from species to species. Just as an indicator, an amino acid called BMAA is made by many species of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae, formerly); it is a nerve poison, and is the likely (not yet totally proven) cause of Alzheimers'-type dementias. That's just one amino acid. Suppose an alien species used BMAA as a framework residue, say, in place of Glutamine? Nobody could eat each other safely—I guess that's good news!

This is the author's seventh book, all written in the past three years. The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies is nonfiction; the rest are Sci-Fi and near Sci-Fi. His blog, The Whatever, is one of the longest-running weblogs, and a style-setter of the web log genre.

No comments: