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Tag Archives: speculative fiction

Poetry, Language, and Artificial Intelligence

Poetry exemplifies how the meaning of a string of words depends not only upon the sum of the meaning of the words, or on the order in which they are placed, but also upon something we call “context”.  Context is essentially the concept that single word (or idea) has a different meaning depending on its surroundings.  These surroundings could be linguistic–the language we are assuming the word to belong to, for example, environmental–say it’s cold out and I say “It’s sooooooo hot.”, or in light of recent events: “The Mets suck” means something very different if they’ve just won a game than if they’ve just lost one.

Poetry is the art of manipulating the various possible contexts to get across a deeper or more complex meaning than the bare string of words itself could convey.  The layers of meaning are infinitely deep, and in fact in any form of creative  writing, it is demonstrably impossible for every single human to understand all of them.  I say poetry is the “art” of such manipulation because it is most often the least subtle about engaging in it.  All language acts manipulate context.  Just using a simple pronoun is manipulating context to express meaning.

And we don’t decode this manipulation separate from decoding the bare language.  It happens as a sort of infinite feedback loop, working on all the different layers of an utterance at once.  The ability to both manipulate concepts infinitely and understand our own infinite manipulations might be considered the litmus test for what is considered “intelligent” life.

 

Returning to the three words in our title, I’ve discussed everything but AI.  The difficulty in creating AGI, or artificial general intelligence lies in the fact that nature had millions or billions of years to sketch out and color in the complex organic machine that grants humans this power of manipulation.  Whereas humans have had maybe 100?  In a classic chicken and egg problem, it’s quite difficult to have either the concept web or the system that utilizes it without the other part.  If the system creates the web, how do you know how to code the system without knowing the structure of the web?  And if the web comes first, how can you manipulate it without the complete system?

You might have noticed a perfect example of how context affects meaning in that previous paragraph.  One that was not intentional, but that I noticed as I went along. “Chicken and egg problem”.  You  can’t possibly know what I meant by that phrase without having previously been exposed to the philosophical question of which came first, the chicken that laid the egg, or the egg the chicken hatched from.  But once you do know about the debate, it’s pretty easy to figure out what I meant by “chicken and egg problem”, even though in theory you have infinite possible meanings.

How in the world are you going to account for every single one of those situations when writing an AI program?  You can’t.  You have to have a system based on very general principles that can deduce that connection from first principles.

 

Although I am a speculative fiction blogger, I am still a fiction blogger.  So how do this post relate to fiction?  When  writing fiction you are engaging in the sort of context manipulation I’ve discussed above as such an intractable problem for AI programmers.  Because you are an intelligent being, you can instinctually engage in it when writing, but unless you are  a rare genius, you are more likely needing to engage in it explicitly.  Really powerful writing comes from knowing exactly what context an event is occurring in in the story and taking advantage of that for emotional impact.

The death of a main character is more moving because you have the context of the emotional investment in that character from the reader.  An unreliable narrator  is a useful tool in a story because the truth is more surprising either  when the character knew it and purposefully didn’t tell the reader, or neither of them knew it, but it was reasonable given the  information both had.  Whereas if the truth is staring the reader in the face but the character is clutching the idiot ball to advance the plot, a readers reaction is less likely to be shock or epiphany and more likely to be “well,duh, you idiot!”

Of course, context can always go a layer deeper.  If there are multiple perspectives in the story, the same situation can lead to a great deal of tension because the reader knows the truth, but also knows there was no way this particular character could.  But you can also fuck that up and be accused of artificially manipulating events for melodrama, like if a simple phone call could have cleared up the misunderstanding but you went to unbelievable lengths to prevent it even though both characters had cell phones and each others’ numbers.

If the only conceivable reason the call didn’t take place was because the author stuck their nose in to prevent it, you haven’t properly used or constructed  the context for the story.  On the other hand, perhaps there was an unavoidable reason one character lost their phone earlier in the story, which had sufficient connection to  other important plot events to be not  just an excuse to avoid the plot-killing phone-call.

The point being that as I said before, the  possible contexts for language or events are infinite.  The secret to good writing  lies in being able to judge which contexts are most relevant and making sure that your story functions reasonably within those contexts.  A really, super-out-of-the-way solution to a problem being ignored is obviously a lot more acceptable than ignoring the one staring you in the face.  Sure your character might be able to send a morse-code warning message by hacking the electrical grid and blinking the power to New York repeatedly.  But I suspect your readers would be more likely to call you out for solving the communication difficulty that way than for not solving it with the characters’ easily  reachable cell phone.

I mention the phone thing because currently, due to rapid technological progress, contexts are shifting far  more rapidly than they did in the past.  Plot structures honed for centuries based on a lack of easy long-range communication are much less serviceable as archetypes now that we have cell phones.  An author who grew up before the age of ubiquitous smart-phones for your seven-year-old is going to have a lot more trouble writing a believable contemporary YA romance than someone who is turning twenty-two in the next three months.  But even then, there’s a lack of context-verified, time-tested plot structures to base such a story on than a similar story set in the 50s.  Just imagine how different Romeo and Juliet would have been if they could have just sent a few quick texts.

In the past, the ability of the characters to communicate at all was a strong driver of plots.  These days, it’s far more likely that trustworthiness of communication will be a central plot point.  In the past, the possible speed of travel dictated the pacing of many events.  That’s  far less of an issue nowadays. More likely, it’s a question of if you missed your flight.  Although…  the increased speed of communication might make some plots more unlikely, but it does counteract to some extent the changes in travel speed.  It might be valuable for your own understanding and ability to manipulate context to look at some works in older settings and some works in newer ones and compare how the authors understanding of context increased or decreased the impact and suspension of disbelief for the story.

Everybody has some context for your 50s love story because they’ve been exposed to past media depicting it.  And a reader is less likely to criticize shoddy contextualizing in when they lack any firm context of their own.   Whereas of course an expert on horses is far more likely to find and be irritated by mistakes in your grooming and saddling scenes than a kid born 16 years ago is to criticize a baby-boomer’s portrayal of the 60s.

I’m going to end this post with a wish for more stories–both SpecFic and YA–more strongly contextualized in the world of the last 15 years.  There’s so little of it, if you’re gonna go by my high standards.

 

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Now with Book Reviews! Sort of…

A friend of mine, Nick Morgan, has started a book review blog.  It’s mostly just for fun.  But he’s invited me to do the speculative fiction reviews, and I’m really looking forward to it.  I’ve always wanted to give book reviewing a try.  Also guest-blogging will be a mutual friend of ours Marisa Greene.

I may or may not be cross-posting the reviews to the Chimney.  I haven’t decided yet whether that would dilute the focus of this blog to much.  If I don’t cross-post, I probably will link to them on Twitter and at the bottom of whatever post I happen to be writing for the Chimney that week.

 

Keep an eye on Notes from The Dark Net for those reviews.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in atsiko, Blogging, Books, Reviews

 

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Real World Booty: Plundering Reality to Meet Your Fantastical Needs

Hopefully that title won’t bring me too many people searching for porn.  One of the greatest sins of the writer is disappointing your reader, intended audience or not.

What I want to talk about in this post is both the issue of cliches in fantasy, and how to more effectively draw inspiration from the real world for your science fiction or fantasy.  I’ll be looking mostly at fantasy here, though.

 

So, fantasy is often accused of being a mass of cliches, or an idealized Medieval Europe.  Also of lacking diversity, and rehashing the same few tired plots.  And it’s true.The quest narrative, the rightful king narrative, and the invasion/war narrative are three of the most popular plots in fantasy, no matter what the setting.  Urban fantasy tends to focus on murder mystery or heist plots, with the occasional corrupt authority/dictator and secret cabal thrown in.  Etc.

And that’s understandable.  They’re the most popular plots already, they’re easy to conceptualize, and they have a mass of associated tropes to draw on.  Honestly, as broad as that list is, it’s hard to imagine there even are other plots to take.  And where would one find the inspiration for them, when fantasy itself is so inbred and cliche?

 

The answer to that question, as the title of this post hopefully suggests, is the real world.  What are or were hot-button issues in the real world during various historical periods?  Especially ones outside of the traditional mediveal European settings?  And how can we makes use of them while avoiding things like cultural appropriation?

 

I’ll give a few examples, and hopefully conclude with some useful methods of finding more.

 

1. Industrialization is one such plot.  It’s almost the entire basis of steampunk, much like the digital revolution is the basis cyberpunk.  The difference between the two genres might provide some useful thoughts.  Cyberpunk relates to the information revolution.  Control of data and information drives many of the plots.  Hacking, after all, a mainstay of cyberpunk, is about liberating information and fighting manipulation of it and the invasive gathering of it.  Steampunk is about the effects of urbanization and industrialization on public morals, the class divide, etc.

2. One way to find inspiration is to take an era in the real world and tease out what the major concerns of the people were.  You can fine-tune it even more, and look at different groups in the same era.  During the 20s, you had prohibition occupying the minds of the government, the criminal element, and the various classes, especially the working class.  You had suffrage occupying much of the middle class.  Both of these are public morals issues as well as economic and political issues.

3. The colonial period deals with religious and economic issues.  The colonists wanted to practice their version of correct Christianity.  The British Empire wanted to increase its economic power and prestige as compared to the other European countries.  Countries like India, China, and Japan worried about growing European power and influence.  The proliferation of opium in China courtesy of British traders was a public morals issue for China, and an economic one for Britain.  The forced opening of Japan near the end of the period dealt with global influence and cultural contamination.  Cultural contamination is often a strong possible plot point.  So is the ability to trade.  Britain and America desired coaling stations to power their ships, which Japan could provide, though it didn’t want to, and trade targets for their goods–again, something Japan had but didn’t want to engage in.  British opium grown in India had a ready market in China, and the British needed the money to fund their colonial pursuits, but the Chinese government hated it, and indeed several wars and rebellions occurred in China over the issue of such foreign influence.

4. The decay of the samurai class in Japan is another example of a plot point not based on wars or quests or murder mysteries.  The ease of training conscripts with guns and the fact that samurai martial arts could not compete on the battle field with many modern war technologies created a great deal of social unrest in the upper classes, of which samurai constituted a large portion.  Centuries of power and tradition came under threat with the influx of Western goods and technologies.

5. Resource management is another common source of tension.  Water rights, various magical analogies to resources and resource management, the rise of land prices in response to some new perceived value.  All of these could drive fantasy plots just as easily as evil overlords or imminent invasions.

6.  Taking from the modern day, important inventions, magical or otherwise make good plots points.  Look at the many effects of social networking technologies like Facebook have had on our own society.  The cotton gin, railroads, steamboats.

7.  Things like intra-governmental conflict are also good sources of conflict.  Analogies to states rights, or who controls interstate commernce and what such a term covers, especially in the face of new ideas or technologies could drive a fantasy novel.  So could large movements of people, such as illegal immigrants to the US.  Famine or disease or political revolution and exposure to other cultures and ideas could drive stories.  US influence pre-war on Afghanistan.  Religious movements such as the Taliban or the Great Awakening.

8. Finally, something I’ve always been interested in, more low-stakes conflict, as seen in general fiction or YA contemp.  Conflict between less powerful members of society can illuminate conflicting forces as good or better than conflict between powerful sorcerers or kings.

 

And there are many more things than what I’ve listed.  Almost infinite sources of inspiration.  Even odd small facts you ran across in a Facebook post or magazine article.

 

In summary, here are three major sources of inspiration I feel have been previously untapped or not fully utilized:

1. The common concerns of various eras in various countries, such as Prohibition or urbanization in the US.

2. Conflict in microcosms of society as opposed to the macrocosm: War shortages in one neighborhood in a medium city as opposed to soldiers on the front lines.

3. Changes in a culture or society brought about not by war or good vs. evil, such as the decay of the Samurai class during the Meiji era of Japan or Southern planters near the end of slavery.

 
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Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Fantasy, Ideas, Speculative Reality, World-building

 

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The Translation Problem: People vs. Computers

In my last post, I introduced the topic of natural language processing and discussed the issue of how the context of a piece of language has an enormous impact on its translation into another language.  In this post, I want to address issue with translation.  Specifically, I want to talk how language is really an integrated function of the way the human brain models the world, and why this might make it difficult to create a machine translator isolated from the rest of an artificial intelligence.

When a human uses language they are expressing things that are based upon an integrated model of the universe in which they live.  There is a linguistic model in their brain that divides up their concept of the world into ideas representable by words.  For example, let’s look at the word “pit bull”.  (It’s written with two words, but as a compound word, it functions as a single noun.)  Pit bull is a generic term for a group of terrier dog breeds.  Terriers are dogs.  Dogs are mammals.  Mammals are animals.  This relationship is called a hypernym/hyponym relationship.  All content words(nouns/verbs/adjectives) are part of a hierarchical tree of hypo-/hyper-nym relationships.

So when you talk about a pit bull, you’re invoking the tree to which it belongs, and anything you say about a pit bull will trigger the conversational participants’ knowledge and feelings about not only pit bulls, but all the other members of the tree to which it belongs.  It would be fairly trivial programming-wise, although possibly quite tedious data-entry-wise to create a hypo-/hyper-nym tree for the couple-hundred-thousand or so words that make up the core vocabulary of English.  But to codify the various associations to all those words would be a lot more difficult.  Such a tree would be a step towards creating both a world-model and knowledge-base, aspects of artificial intelligence not explicitly related to the problem of machine translation.  That’s because humans use their whole brain when they use language, and so by default, they use more than just a bare set of grammar rules when parsing language and translating between one language and another.

One use of such a tree and its associations would be to distinguish between homographs or homonyms.  For example, if the computer sees a word it knows is associated with animals, it could work through the hypernym tree to see if “animal” is a hypernym or association with say, the word horse.  Or, if it sees the word “grain”, it could run through the trees of other words to see if they are farming/crop related or wood-related.  Or, perhaps, crossing language boundaries, if a language has one word that covers all senses of “ride”, and the other language distinguishes between riding in a car, or riding a horse, the program could use the trees to search for horse- or car-related words that might let it make a best guess one which verb is appropriate in a given context.

The long and short of the case I intend to make is that a true and accurate translation program cannot be written without taking enormous steps down the path of artificial intelligence.  A purely rule-based system, no matter how many epicycles are added to it, cannot be entirely accurate, because even a human being with native fluency in both languages and extensive knowledge and experience of translating cannot be entirely accurate.  Language is too malleable and allows too many equivalent forms to always allow for a single definitive translation of anything reasonably complex, and this is why it is necessary to make value judgements based on extra-linguistic data, which can only be comprehensively modeled by using techniques beyond pure grammatical rules.

 

In the next post, I’ll talk about statistical methods of machine translation, and hopefully I’ll be following that up with a critique and analysis of the spec fic concept of a universal translator.

 
 

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The Translation Problem

One of the biggest problems in the field of artificial intelligence as it is popularly conceived is that of natural language processing and machine translation.  Natural language processing is the processing of human languages, generally in the form of text, but also as audio, by computers and software.  Machine translation is a form of natural language processing having to do with the translation of a text from one language into another by a computer.  Enormous strides have been made in natural language processing over the last two decades.  Text-to-speech, represented often by those annoying robotic phone calls, and speech-to-text such as dictation software, have both improved markedly.

But the big fish of natural language processing is still the universal translator, able to translate between any two given languages with high accuracy, perhaps even perfectly.  Which is, currently impossible, despite what people might tell you.  For example, Skype Translator looks great in the recent demo, but it’s doubtful it performs quite so well in the field.

There are actually several major issues that machine translation, and translation in general, have to tackle to achieve a high degree of accuracy.  Over the next few posts, I’m going to discuss what some of them are, why they are so difficult to solve, and possible ways they might be overcome.

To start with, there’s a very simple problem with most translation:  language has meaning on its own, but for human communication purposes, you have to know the context of the words you are trying to translate.  Most communication is not factual transmission of information.  Even in formal written prose, there are heaps of subtle ambiguities, and most humans can’t always pick up on every one, much less a poor dumb computer.  This is a problem not only when a word is used that has two different sense, such as a technical and a general sense.  Different languages divide up their semantic space differently, and a word that is a correct translation on paper may fail miserably in the real world.

To give an example, Japanese has pronouns just like English.  However, it does not have an exactly equivalent set.  The word for “her” in Japanese is “kanojo”.  But that word is rarely used, as most Japanese uses a name and an honorific instead.  Further complicating the situation, the word “kanojo” is also idiomatic for “girlfriend”.  The same goes for “kareshi” which is often translated as “he” on paper.   And then we have the various Japanese pronouns technically meaning “you”, or at least referring to the second person singular.  The main one given in teaching Japanese is “anata”.  However, much like “kanojo” or “kareshi” there is a sense of intimacy not immediately apparent in the use of this word.  It is often used between older married couples to mean something like “dear”, and is rarely if ever used as a bare second person, singular pronoun.  Rather, again, the person’s name and an honorific are used.  However, a great deal would have to be hard-coded into a piece of translation software to cover all of this, and that’s assuming there’s even enough context to make a decision at all.  Further, going into Japanese from English, would require the addition of formality information that a computer or even a human couldn’t always be sure of.

It’s often possible to translate conversation/survival language with bare, literal translations, because the basic sense is all that matters.  But more formal registers, or translation of a fixed text, would likely prove impossible for today’s machine translators and most humans, because there’s no way to convey all the necessary context that would provide information that in one language would not be included lexically or grammatically, but it all but necessary for appropriate communication in the other.

 

In the next post, I’ll be looking more at the ways language divide up their semantic space, and how that hinders accurate translation.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Fairytale Fiction

Sub-genre of the Week: Fairytale Fantasy

Last week, I discussed Near-future SF.  This week, I’m going to talk about a newly re-popularized genre of fantasy: fairytale re-tellings.

Definition:

Fairytale fiction is a sub-genre of speculative that revolves around re-tellings of fairytales in new settings, with new characters, or from the perspective of a previously non-perspective character, and also fairytale style stories.

History

Fairytale retellings have been around for as long as there have been fairytales, but in the past decade or so, they’ve come together as a commercial genre.

Common Tropes and Conventions

The same as those for fairytales: secret royal birth, HEA endings, marriage into a royal family, something dangerous in the nearby woods, etc.

Genre Crossover

Fairytale fiction is unique among fantasy genres for generally having very little crossover.  The specifics of the stories usually preclude it.  It’s certainly possible to create high or epic fantasy out of fairytales, but people usually file off the serial numbers if they do so.

Media

Robin Hood has always been popular in film, and Snow White has just recently received multiple adaptions.  No doubt there will be more in the future.

Future Forecast

Fairytale fiction will no doubt continue to be popular for the near-future.  Although the most popular stories now have four or five major retellings, there are plenty of lesser known stories still awaiting a re-imagining.

Recommendations

1.  Enchanted series by Gail Carson Levine

2.  Lunar Chronicles series by Marissa Meyer

3.  Beastly by Alex Flinn

4.  Princess series by Jim C. Hines

5.  Rapunzel’s Revenge series by Shannon Hale

6.  Briar Rose by Jane Yolen

7.  Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu

8.  Five Hundred Kingdoms series by Mercedes Lackey

9.  Beauty by Robin McKinley

10.  The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

Goodreads list of Fairytale Fantasy

Next week: Cyberpunk

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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Subgenre of the Week: Near-future SF

Sub-genre of the Week: Near-future SF

Last week, I talked about Portal Fantasy.  This week, I’m going to tackle another tough to categorize genre.

Definition:

Near-future SF is a sub-genre of SF dealing with science fiction stories and concepts just the other side of contemporary.  I’ll limit it to the next fifty years for the purposes of this post.

History

There can be no true history of the genre, since what qualifies changes as time passes.  But the concept originated as a sub-genre in the 90s and grew to its present size and description in the late 2000s.

Common Tropes and Conventions

Besides the fifty-year time frame, there are few major tropes and conventions.  There’s a tendency towards exploration of the solar system, biological advances, punk themes, climate change, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, occasionally fusion reactors and green energy.

Genre Crossover

Near-future SF crosses over with dystopian fiction, Mundane SF, and social science fiction.  It may also share traits with some hard sf.

Media

Near-future SF rarely gets attention in video media, due to its often lack of flashy technology.  It does come up now and again in anime and manga.  Otherwise, it’s mostly a print genre.

Future Forecast

By definition we’re going to have more of this.  The popularity of near-future SF and its related genres has gone up quite a bit since the post-cyberpunk movement and I don’t see it slowing down any time soon.

Recommendations

1.  Dagmar series by Walter John Williams

2.  Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

3.  Halting State by Charles Stross

4.  The Wind-up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

5.  Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

6.  Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

7.  Air: or Have Not Have by Geoff Ryman

8.  India 2047 series by Ian McDonald

9.  Anime: Planetes

10.  Anime: Dennou Coil

Goodreads list of Near-future SF

Check in next time for a discussion of Fairytale Fiction.

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2013 in genre, Genre of the Week

 

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