Everybody loves a good mad scientist, right?
I was originally going to just write up about that phenomenon… then I remembered A Miracle of Science. It’s a webcomic with good drawings and some of the best semi-squishy sci-fi I’ve come across, as well as a few relatively unusual features. As ever… spoilers! Big spoilers! I strongly recommend you read the comic first — it’s awesome. (Also, when reading, don’t forget to read the titles on your browser window. I hadn’t noticed them before, but they add some bonus hilarity. Also the comments underneath by the authors.)
Science-Related Memetic Disorder
Hey, I said there was mad science, right?
Best quote ever: “When you’re a recovering mad scientist, you’re always afraid you’ll wake up some morning with a half-built time machine in the living room and a plan to go back in time and pants Hitler. You know how it is.”
That pretty much summarizes the main idea. Mad scientists have a particular mental health issue, communicable via memes (particular ideas), which results in them being… well, mad scientists cackling about making a robot utopia, for example. Of course, there are standard diagnostic criteria (mad cackling, crazy ideas, not playing well with others, using a lab coat to handle the chill…) and appropriate medical treatments.
To match the SRMD, there’s an appropriate amount of mad science. Mars, Venus, and Ganymede have all been terraformed to the point of habitability. Faster-than-light communications are ubiquitous, and Mars has figured out how to do FTL travel. There are nanobots, antigravity “vector fields”, AI, disintegrators and ray guns. It’s not hard sci-fi by any stretch, but it does a nice job of remaining relatively consistent throughout. For instance, the antagonist is smart enough to immediately realize that a craft seen taking only two minutes to get from Mars to Earth is going faster than light-speed, and acts on that intelligence. Our mad scientist is also smart enough to sometimes accept advice from his minions. (Yes-men… or bots… aren’t terribly helpful, after all.) Nanobots are used for healing on multiple occasions. And so forth. But one technology is particularly interesting…
Is All AI A Crapshoot?
There are a lot of settings where AI just… go nuts. In various different entertaining and dangerous ways.
This is not one of them.
The AIs fall into two classes — dumb ones, which essentially just do as they’re told like contemporary computers, and smart ones, which appear to have a degree of personhood close to that of humans:
“Uh.. beep, click! That does not compute!” “Don’t play non-sentient with me, buddy…”
These smarter AIs are smart enough that Benjamin Prester, our investigative hero, manages to talk a couple of them out of killing him and into helping him against their mad scientist creator — on the grounds that having their creator surrender to the authorities, going to jail and getting treatment would be safer for him. Another nice touch is that the sentient AIs are treated by humans and other AIs as if they are people. As a result, there are no faceless mooks that can be mowed down without guilt.
Resolving the Fermi Paradox
The Fermi Paradox gets wrapped up in this story, too. Bluntly — why haven’t we gotten messages from all the aliens?
The answer: They’re all dead.
The dozen alien races that existed in the Milky Way all self-destructed by one means or another, with ages since death from many millions to, tragically, only a thousand years ago. The Martians discovered this shortly after exploring the galaxy with their FTL handwavium. They are as a consequence very seriously concerned about the human race’s continued survival.
Admittedly, this is a very depressing resolution to the Fermi Paradox, but, given that in reality we have less than two centuries’ worth of use of radio and no data on what real aliens are like, it’s plausible.
Then again, given the size of the universe, there are almost certainly currently-live intelligent aliens elsewhere. Maybe Mars just hasn’t had the time or resources to start scouring other galaxies yet.
In this setting, Mars is particularly fascinating. It is a rare example of a benevolent hive mind.
Mars (and Martians) are not the Borg. Martians are normal-looking humans carrying around massive quantities of nanotech, plus FTL radio in their heads. Individuals still have their own minds and personalities, but are all components of Mars. Also unlike the Borg, each individual is valued as such. It also cares enough about its individual members that when the Martian who’s been working with Prestor, one Caprice Quevillion, suddenly loses her connection with Mars, it sends an FTL fleet to Venus to find her. We also get a view of Caprice’s mother’s reaction… which roughly lines up with that of Mars as a whole. Meanwhile, this makes me wonder how Mars handles the more natural deaths of individuals… sadness, loss, certainly. But are there no Martians who have flying accidents, or other sudden deaths that would be a similar shock? Given their tech, perhaps such sudden, accidental death is quite rare.
Crime doesn’t exist on Mars (except that caused by visitors who are not Martians), since Mars always knows what Mars/Martians are thinking. Martians find it odd to not know what other people are thinking. Mars is also smart enough, between all its individual members, to have invented FTL drives, among other things.
From the story, it’s not clear how this got started, aside from most of the current Martians being descendants of the original American and Chinese colonies. So I wonder: How did Mars begin? Did the people individually get the head-radios, and the personality that is Mars was an emergent result? Or was Mars deliberately engineered as an overall intelligence drawn from the combination of the individuals? Either way, there are significant issues that aren’t closely addressed in the story — such as, what if an individual doesn’t want to be a part of Mars? Can a normal human from elsewhere join the hive mind?
Naturally, the interaction between Martians and normal humans is of interest. Prester eventually gets used to the idea, but his initial reaction to Mars is to call it “creepy.” Mars is… somewhat amused by this. And works to demonstrate its pleasant society, high technology, and general non-evilness.
Of course, Mars does have an ulterior motive. It wants to have Prestor’s help in preventing Mars from ever contracting SRMD. Given that having the super-powerful hive mind go all mad scientist is a bad thing, this probably still falls under the benevolent category. Plus, rather than strapping him to a table and screwing various machinery into him, Mars made a job offer.
Mars also sets him up with Caprice. Because it thinks they’re compatible. And as Caprice says to Prester… “Mars likes you.”