Category Archives: David Walton

SPEED AND DIRECTION: A GUIDE TO WHERE TO FIND US (OCT – DEC, 2016)

Autumn is just around the corner which means new opportunities for holiday stalking visits with some of your favorite authors. Here’s a list of where you can find us during these hectic times:

OCTOBER 2016

LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN:
* Oct 7th – 9th – appearing on programming at Capclave in Gaithersburg, MD.
* Oct 27th – 30th – appearing on programming at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH.

E. C. AMBROSE:
* Oct 27th – 30th – appearing on programming at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH.

FRAN WILDE:
* Oct 7th – signing at New York Comic Con in New York, NY.
* Oct 7th – signing at Books of Wonder in New York, NY, 6pm.
* Oct 27th – 30th – appearing on programming at World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, OH.

DAVID WALTON:
* Oct 7th – 9th – appearing on programming at Capclave in Gaithersburg, MD.

NOVEMBER 2016

TINA CONNOLLY:
*Nov 5th – Book Tour – appearing on programming at Wordstock in Portland, OR
*Nov 7th – Book Tour –  Seriously Shifted at Powell’s Cedar Hills in Beaverton, OR, 7pm
*Nov 14th –  Book Tour – Seriously Shifted at U Books in Seattle, WA, 7pm
*Nov 15th – Book Tour – Seriously Shifted at the Corvallis Library in Corvallis, OR, 4pm
*Nov 16th – Book Tour – Seriously Shifted at Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, CA, 7:30pm
*Nov 18th – 20th – appearing on programming at Orycon in Portland, OR.

DAVID WALTON:
* Nov 18th – 20th – appearing on programming at Philcon in Cherry Hill, NJ.

LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN:
* Nov 11th – reading at Mighty Writers West in Philadelphia, PA, 7pm.
* Nov 18th – 20th – appearing on programming at Philcon in Cherry Hill, NJ.

DECEMBER 2016

BETH CATO:
* Dec 10th – appearing on programming at LibCon in Glendale, AZ.

LAWRENCE M. SCHOEN:
* DEC 6th – guest lecture at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

TINA CONNOLLY:
* Dec 3rd – appearing at Another Read Through in Portland, OR, time TBD.

What Makes You Different From a Nemotode Worm?

In science fiction, we wrestle with big questions.  One of the biggest is the question of what makes humans different from others–whether it be the other species of our planet, the hypothesized creatures of other planets, or some form of artificial intelligence.  It’s a tricky question, made more difficult by the fact that we can’t even agree on the right vocabulary to use.  Here are a few of the terms common in science fictional treatments of the subject, and why they all fall a little bit short:

SENTIENT.  Sentience is probably the most common one heard in SF circles, and also the most inaccurate.  “Sentient” simply means to have senses, to be able to perceive the world around you.  A nemotode worm is sentient.  Your dog it sentient, as are its fleas.  For a computer, sentience may be a more interesting addition, but it’s still a far cry from the defining concept we’re looking for.

INTELLIGENT.  This comes a little closer.  We say “artificial intelligence” to mean computers that demonstrate at least the simulation of thought.  But intelligence is a sliding scale.  Mice have a level of intelligence.  Dolphins more so.  Worse, some people are not very intelligent, and yet still demonstrate many of the qualities we find definitive: a rich emotional life, longing, imagination, a sense of justice and morality, love of beauty, a drive to make sense of the world around us.

SELF-AWARE.  Like intelligence, this term is useful, but addresses only part of the picture.  Self-awareness refers to our ability to contemplate our own existence.  However, it’s fiendishly difficult for anyone except for the one who is self-aware to know if it is actually going on.  I know that I’m self-aware, but how do I know you are?  You claim to be, but I could write a computer program that claims to be self-aware and isn’t.  As such, it’s not a very useful measuring stick to compare beings.  Are dolphins aware of themselves?  Are human babies?  The concept seems to strike at something we consider important, but its ambiguity limits its usefulness.

SAPIENCE.  This may be the best term we have available, though it does a bit of an end-run around the question.  Instead of trying to define what we mean, this term riffs off of homo sapiens and essentially means “that thing that humans are.”  As such, however, it works where other terms fail.  Its only downside is that it’s hard to extrapolate to non-humans.  What about a creature that has many of the transcendent traits of humanity, but is very different from humans in other ways?  Would we call such a creature sapient?  How would we decide whether it is or isn’t?  Some have suggested the word “sophont” as an alternative (from the Greek word for “wise”), to disconnect the term from humanity, but that only changes the word itself, not its meaning.

The basic problem we have with settling on a term is that we don’t all agree, philosophically, with what does differentiate humanity.  If you are a Christian, like I am, you probably see human consciousness as a separate category, something created by God to imitate his own characteristics.  If, however, you’re a scientific materialist, you probably consider the human mind in the same category as that of other animals, differing in details, of course, but not in kind.  Depending on your philosophical framework, you might consider the differences between humans and dolphins to be trivial or profound.  You might consider computers close to being on par with us, or not even on the same track.

I don’t see our vocabulary problem being solved any time soon, but this kind of dilemma is why I love science fiction.  It gives us the opportunity to explore this space by imaging creatures–both organic and artificial–that may challenge our ideas of what makes humanity unique.  And a philosophical challenge is a great way to exercise that part of you that makes you different… whatever you want to call it.

 

Who Put This Message In My Fiction?

A story written to preach a message is usually a bad idea.

When fiction is meant to persuade, story often takes a back seat to the author’s passion for the issue.  Those who agree already might laud it, but those who don’t just feel scolded instead of entertained.  If you want to convince the world of global warming, for instance, don’t write a story with oil magnate villains who just want to make money while the world dies.  If you rage against the ills of capital punishment, don’t write a story where a disreputable prosecutor bends laws and ethics to get the death penalty out of fear and hatred for the accused.  In any of these cases, you will be unlikely to depict the views of the other side with empathy and fairness, and so the tale will ring false, especially to those who don’t agree with you.  You will be unlikely to convince anyone.

And yet, science fiction is a literature of ideas.  One of the true strengths of the genre is how it engages with the serious issues of mankind.  What does it mean to be human?  Are we getting better as a species or worse?  Do our choices make a difference in the stream of time, or are the results the same no matter what we choose?  Why do we go to war?  Can technology solve our problems?  Can civilization?  What happens to us when we die, and what would happen if we could live forever?

Along with these core questions about ourselves, science fiction isn’t afraid of challenging social norms.  Does gender really make us different?  What would happen if there was only one gender?  Or three?  Or people switched genders by day of the week?  What does a family look like if there are more parents, or fewer, of the same gender or different, or the parents take turns, or children aren’t raised by parents at all?  What lines should romantic love be allowed to cross?

It seems like a contradiction.  Messages make for bad fiction, but SF is all about grappling with issues.  How do these two things fit together?

I think the key is in asking questions instead of answering them.  SF readers are intelligent and thoughtful, on the whole, and our literature should encourage them to be more so.  Instead of telling the reader what he ought to think, authors should present the truth about the world in a thought-provoking way and let readers find their own conclusions.  If the side you feel so passionately about is true, then a true representation of the world will lead many toward your views, or at least lead them to question their own.  If you write about an issue, then, show us a true and compassionate view of the thinking on every side.  Don’t let the people who agree with you already get off easy with strawman arguments and one-sided villains; paint people as they really are, with all their complexity and contradictions.  Show how emotions cloud logic on both sides of the argument, and how honest and well-meaning people might take opposing stands.  Ask the questions that make people think instead of trying to force feed them answers.  Your fiction will be richer for it, and just might be more persuasive.

David Walton is a native of Pennsylvania and recipient of the 2008 Philip K. Dick Award for his first novel, Terminal Mind. His latest books, SUPERPOSITION and SUPERSYMMETRY, are quantum physics thrillers with the same mind-bending feel as films like Inception and Minority Report. He is also the author of QUINTESSENCE, a science fantasy in which the Earth is really flat, and its sequel, QUINTESSENCE SKY.  You can find out more about his books at http://www.davidwaltonfiction.com/

Who Are You Calling Artificial?

We have a dream–in many circles, an expectation, even–that someday our computers will be more intelligent than we are.  Countless science fiction stories about artificial intelligence have taught us to believe these computers will be ultra-rational, but emotionless, infinitely knowledgeable, but without the ability to understand nuance or ambiguity.  These stories explore the distinction between intellect and sympathy, programming and free will, but none of them are ultimately about computers.  They’re about us.

As far as we know, we’re alone in the universe.  That makes it difficult for us to talk about concepts like “self awareness” or “sapience” or “intelligence” because we don’t have any other examples to compare ourselves to.

When I talk about an “intelligent” computer, I mean a computer that’s like me.  But what does that mean?  We feel like we know, but when it comes down to it, it’s very difficult to define.

The Turing Test isn’t very helpful.  A computer that can fool me into thinking it’s a person might make an excellent telemarketing robot, but that doesn’t mean it has an internal experience or emotional life.  In fact, there are humans–particularly those who are very young, very old, or who have mental disabilities–who have trouble passing the Turing Test and most other tests of its kind.  Yet no one doubts their claim to self awareness and sapience.

So how do we explore this idea of who we are?  What makes us as humans different than the computers we build or the animals with whom we share the planet?  The answers are ultimately philosophical ones, not technical.  Our difficulty in defining just who and what we are means that if we ever do create something like strong AI, no one will be able to agree on whether it truly is or not.  In the meantime, science fiction gives us endless scope to keep asking the questions and debating the answers: Just what does it mean to be us?