Category Archives: Science

Machines, You, and Other Synonyms: PSIF and NaNoWriMo

Today is the final stop of the Putting the Science in Fiction1 blog tour, where ten of its authors offer ideas and story prompts to help you get some exciting science ideas to help build your National Novel Writing Month  (#NaNoWriMo) efforts – and offer you a chance to win a free copy of PSIF. As you may know, I’m a neuroscientist as well as a SFF writer and editor, so I contributed a chapter on Cyborgs & Cybernetics to PSIF.

My chapter is an expanded version of my “Putting the Science in Fiction” blog post Seven Things Authors Should Know about Cybernetics, so take a peek there if you need a refresher. This topic covers everything near-future medical implants to space opera neurotechnology, so it’s a field rich with possible stories.

PSIF NaNoWriMo story prompts

Note: no official connection to NaNoWriMo

Machines, You, and Other Synonyms

Cybernetics – the hybridization of human and machine – is a staple of science fiction, from ubiquitous internet-access implants to the terrifying Borg to the differently terrifying ancillaries of the Imperial Radch. It’s easy to include cyborgs in a story: give a character a little bit of superhuman capability, maybe a little bit of discrimination or prejudice, a dash of handwavey Humanity Loss if you’re feeling cyberpunk. But who needs to stay bound by those shallow clichés? After all, not only is NaNoWriMo coming up, but even after it’s over, the next year is forecast to have 365.25 other good days to start a new writing project.

Let’s dig a little deeper into what cybernetics might really mean for the recipients, society, and culture. I think we’ll find ourselves a rich vein of story prompts down here. I’m going to open three idea-mines for you, and I promise I’ll dig them deep.

The Brain is Enslaved to the Body

The development of any animal’s brain follows from the development of their body, not vice versa. Grotesque-but-fascinating animal experimentshave shown that if you alter an animal at birth, e.g. by blinding it, you radically alter their brain development. Visual areas of the brain only develop because vision-like information arrived from the eyes and the world. In the words of one of that experiment’s authors, “the brain is enslaved to the body.”

What might happen, then, if we change the brain?

Perhaps we can add a new source of data – a new sense – to a newborn brain, and they’ll develop to adapt to it. Or worse yet, they might not quite succeed. After all, the brain isn’t infinitely changeable; an embryonic cow brain transplanted into a human body wouldn’t become a human. Plus, it’s not as if our brain is sitting around with spare capacity. Despite myths to the contrary,we use 100% of our brains, 100% of the time. If we try to add more or different functions, will we simply fail? Or will we pay some other price, in the tradeoffs of brain development?

It’s certainly a risky proposition. Almost certainly unethical. What pressures, then, might drive parents to make such a decision for their newborn child?

Blue Collar Borg

As William Gibson once said, the future is already here, it’s just distributed unevenly. The first clinical trial of a human cybernetic implant– a chip implanted in the brain to control a computer – began in 2004. The current studybegan in 2009, scheduled to finish in 2021. It will be many years yet before these become a reliable, common medical device. Once the technology is established and safe, how will it trickle down into everyday life?

Many technologies start among the rich, and slowly become cheaper as companies try to widen their markets. Medical technologies sometimes follow a different route, at least in the United States: if insurance will pay for it, it can become widespread regardless of price. But the medical market for these devices is people with spinal cord injuries, ALS, or other conditions that impair the brain’s ability to control the body. Even in the technology’s simplest form, controlling a computer cursor with the brain, who else might want that ability?

Will America fill up with medium-rich workers who want an extra edge in the speed and precision of how they control their computers? Will there be advertisements out there to promise you all that speed and precision? Will the products really deliver on that promise, or will your cybernetic implant only save your wrists from carpal tunnel syndrome? What do you do if yours doesn’t live up to the promise? Or even if it does at first, what happens when your supplier goes out of business, and nobody remains to honor the service contract for the electrodes in your brain?

Perhaps instead, the real market for cybernetics will be more physical: workers who not only type, but control machines. Perhaps you could control a crane as easily as you move your own arm. Will this transform blue-collar work into an exciting and cutting-edge field, or push them into the realm of the strange and reviled?

Cyborgs and Society

The impact of any technology on society depends on the stories we tell about it. Space travel is the terrain of humanist adventure or fathomless terror. Universal surveillance is the tool of world-saving spies or a soul-crushing panopticon. Even a technology’s mere presence onscreen can affect society: eyeglasses became more popular after they began to appear in silent film.

How will movies, books, and other media reinterpret these changes for the mass audience? Will they tell stories of cybernetic implants as a tool to help people, or a tool of control? Will they be ordinary, or a sign of villainy? Hollywood persistently and harmfully portrays disability as a sign of evil. Will cybernetic implants be portrayed as another tool for horror-movie clichés to terrify their victims, for dystopian societies to alter or police their citizens, or as an ordinary part of how we help human bodies – in all their diverse shapes – interact with the world?

We can shape the societies within our stories, but we can also shape the one outside. The next generation of stories are ours to write, starting this November and every day thereafter.

Book Giveaway

This raffle is your chance to win a free copy of PSIF!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Putting the Science in Fiction: Publication Day

TPSIF cover imagehe day has arrived (or did on Tuesday): Putting the Science in Fiction has launched! This fascinating tome contains 59 essays by scientists and other experts, written at a level to help authors integrate believable science into their writing. Includes a foreword by Chuck Wendig – and more importantly, a chapter by me on cyborgs and cybernetics!

As of today, Amazon has the hardcopy only, not the ebook. So why not support your local bookstore and get it through Indiebound instead? For more options, scroll down in the publicity link above.

If you check it out, put up a review on Goodreads and/or Amazon! Your feedback will help sales, and help get this book in front of more rising authors of speculative fiction.

Meaningful Knowledge and Dopamine

NeuroThursday takes a hiatus from its hiatus this week! Read on through to see how a recent article about dopamine in beliefs can get us thinking about what’s meaningful, and what we do with the meaning we detect in our lives.

Twitter:

Threadreader:

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1050555234282590208.html

Readercon 2018 schedule

Next weekend I’ll be a guest at Readercon in Quincy, MA. My first time back to my home territory for convention purposes! Here’s where to find me:

Reading (with José Pablo Iriarte)
Friday 11:30am-12:00pm, Salon B
Joe Iriarte and I are sharing a reading slot. Come listen to our awesome projects! I will probably read something about my favorite baby artificial intelligence, but no promises. I only promise awesomeness.

Understanding Neuroscience
Friday 1-2pm, Salon C
“The human brain may be the most complex structure in the universe, but that won’t stop us from learning, thinking, and writing about it. How can we dive into something so impenetrable, and extract stories that are coherent, plausible, and free from the cliches of the past fifty years?”
• This solo presentation is an updated version of the talk I gave at the 2017 Nebula Conference, so if you missed it there, now’s your time!

Lethe and Mnemosyne: Memory as Plot Device
Saturday 1-2pm, Salon 6.
Tamara Vardomskaya, Elizabeth Bear, Yves Meynar, LJ Cohen, Benjamin C. Kinney
“Authors use amnesia and other types of lost and regained memory to reveal information to the reader as it’s revealed to or remembered by the protagonist. How does this type of narrative function? How does it change if a person’s memory can be stored externally, warped, or erased through technology or magic? This panel will explore works that make use of memory and examine its connections to other stories of what’s lost and found.”

Viable Paradise Alumni Dinner
Saturday Evening
If you’re a member of the Viable Paradise community, I’ll see you there!

Speculative Fiction in Audio: What’s Working and Why
Sunday 12-1pm, Salon C
Victoria Sandbrook, Benjamin C. Kinney, John Chu, Heath Miller, James Patrick Kelly
In 2017, 60 million people tuned in to podcasts, and episodes of Welcome to Night Vale had already been downloaded over 170 million times. Audiobook sales are skyrocketing. Podcast production value and diversity in formats and voices are improving daily. This panel will discuss the radio dramas, short story podcasts, serials, audiobooks, and other listenable forms of speculative fiction, and how they’re influencing storytelling.

Kaffeeklatsch
Sunday 2-3pm, Seven Masts
Want to talk to me about neuroscience, Escape Pod, or anything else? Let’s get a coffee and nurse our hypothetical hangovers together!

Motion Illusions and Adaptation

I don’t care if it’s Tuesday! Linear time bends to my whim, and we have a NeuroThursday on the ubiquitous “motion aftereffect” illusion, and the cellular properties that cause it!

Twitter:

Threadreader page:

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1014328050287247360.html

Synesthesia & Evolutionary Psychology

NeuroThursday reappeared this week in a flash of numbers and sound, to tell us about synesthesia! The condition, and its implications for how we think about human evolution.

Twitter thread:

Thread Reader page:

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1007413448647561216.html

Yanni, Laurel, and McGurk: Auditory Illusions

NeuroThursday this week is on auditory illusions, as inspired by Yanni/Laurel!

ThreadReader:

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/997278732493746182.html

Twitter:

Two Spaces of Analysis

NeuroThursday took some unexpected (to me) twists and turns this week, as a piece about that silly “two spaces are better!” article turned into an object lesson on the challenges of scientific analysis!

Thread Reader

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/994760033224286208.html

Twitter

Body Position

NeuroThursday is stumbling on through with a second piece on balance: this time, the “proprioceptive” senses your body uses to keep track of its own position.

Threadreader link

https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/989660943826202624.html

Twitter thread

SoCIA 2018

This past weekend I attended the 2018 Social & Conceptual Issues in Astrobiology conference, an academic gathering for the discussion of social, ethical, and theoretical ramifications of humankind’s interactions with space.

Only about a hundred people could attend, but I’ve gathered my livetweet notes here so you can read up on all these amazing topics! I covered ~40% of the conference, so you should be able to find more notes across the internet via the #SoCIA18 hashtag.

All notes are in Thread Reader form. To read/comment in the original twitter, just click through. For a quick tour, * indicates my personal favorites.