Monday, July 9, 2012

Indistinguishable from Magic

A few random thoughts. A number of waggish commentators have opined over the years that Lord of the Rings, rather than being a fantasy, could also be taken as a post-singularity science fiction tale. The gods are post-singularity entities, what we take for magic is high technology and a survival from more enlightened times. There's an intriguing quote from the canon itself:

'For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe: though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel. Did you not say that you wished to see Elf-magic?'

 I myself was struck by the parallels between stories like from Ghost in the Shell and the tales of old with wizards and places of power. Characteristically enough, I was beaten to the punch years previous by greater minds than I.

In the once upon a time days of the First Age of Magic, the prudent sorcerer regarded his own true name as his most valued possession but also the greatest threat to his continued good health, for--the stories go--once an enemy, even a weak unskilled enemy, learned the sorcerer's true name, then rou- tine and widely known spells could destroy or enslave even the most powerful. As times passed, and we graduated to the Age of Reason and thence to the first and second industrial revolutions, such notions were discredited. Now it seems that the Wheel has turned full circle (even if there never really was a First Age) and we are back to worrying about true names again: 

The first hint Mr. Slippery had that his own True Name might be known--and, for that matter, known to the Great Enemy--came with the appearance of two black Lincolns humming up the long dirt driveway that stretched through the dripping pine forest down to Road 29. Roger Pollack was in his garden weeding, had been there nearly the whole morning, enjoying the barely perceptible drizzle and the overcast, and trying to find the initiative to go inside and do work that actually makes money. He looked up the mo- ment the intruders turned, wheels squealing, into his driveway. Thirty seconds passed, and the cars came out of the third-generation forest to pull up beside and behind Pollack's Honda. Four heavy-set men and a hard-looking female piled out, started purposefully across his well-tended cabbage patch, crushing ten- der young plants with a disregard which told Roger that this was no social call.

True Names Vernor Vinge

In a way, this is perfectly fitting. Fantasy is a way of explaining the world as they imagine but in reality isn't. The self-aware fantasy author acknowledges himself as such; those that do not promulgate a religion.  Science Fiction is about the world that isn't but could be. And the people with the knowledge, means and will shape this idealization into reality.

We are of course familiar with the standard examples of science fiction technologies that have later emerged into the real world: spaceships, robots, artificial intelligence, death rays, nuclear bombs, global communication networks, artificial satellites, etc.

Arthur C. Clarke proposed three laws of prediction. 
  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
 And this of course brings me to reimagine fantasy as science fiction. Sure, we can point to the film Minority Report for demonstrating user interfaces for dumb information systems. But could medieval demonology texts provide a better metaphor for dealing with complex artificial intelligences?


 Demons must be summoned. They are bound to obey arbitrary rules such as answering to true names, staying within the bounds of summoning circles which are just chalk lines on the floor, and literally obeying every command. Hmm. Do computers ignore you if you don't have the correct username and password? Will providing the right security tokens make them obey your command? Will computers almost maliciously do as you say, not what you meant? SQL injection attacks, oh, boy.

One proposed difference between an expert system and a strong AI is that the strong AI has a personal identity, desires and needs. The expert system might be capable of performing great tasks but has no goal beyond mechanically completing the task it was assigned. So while the metaphor might seem like King Solomon binding the djinn to do his will, it might be better to compare a Vodoun priest and his zombies, unthinking slaves who will trudge through whatever task they've been set to. But if an AI is self-aware, does have personal goals and is still bound to obey rules hardcoded into its psyche, answering a summons will have it in a very foul mood before you even ask anything.

The Dabbler Be Damned

If you don't know what you're doing, you will be burned. This is quite true for any number of existing human endeavors. Ignorance is seldom rewarded in the world of practice. Fantasy and fairy tales are full of victim protagonists who don't know what they're in for and hero-protagonists who are forewarned and forearmed, thus able to escape the tricks and wiles of their supernatural foes.

We're familiar with Mickey Mouse's problem in the Sorcerer's Apprentice. He sets the animate broomsticks into motion without a proper bounding condition. Any programmer who's crashed a server with a runaway process knows Mickey's pain.

This is both a feature and security. The feature is that the demonic entity (or process) is bound by rules and cannot do anything that you do not agree to. At the same time, if it is self-aware and malicious, it could do harm to anyone who does not understand those rules. Even if an unauthorized user is capable of obtaining the right summoning ritual (security keys) to access the demon (daemon), ignorance could see him get well and truly burned.  A physical security automation threatens you? Make this hand gesture and use these words and it will relent. But you must know it exactly or it will attack.

The True Name and Place of Power 

Vinge explained the idea of the True Name well enough. But the other idea is the place of power. Traditionally, this would be a sacred grove or a spring or some other notable place that the heart of some spiritual entity resided. Gain access to that point and you can destroy it.

In a cyberized world where interaction is electronic, confronting an avatar in the metaverse means nothing. The real entity is not that which is online, it is that which resides in the real world. If Bob the Superhacker is threatening your interests, the only way to remove Bob from the chessboard is to find his place of power, aka his apartment, and do away with him physically.

Arbitrary Constraints

What other rules are supernatural entities constrained to obey? Not entering a home uninvited ("Did you click "ok" when virus.exe gave you the dialog box?" A holy symbol like a cross shouldn't mean much to a monster but might be a nice hypnotic compulsion for controlling an artificial intelligence. Recall Robocop's and the difficulty presented by his secret fourth directive, "any attempt to arrest a senior OCP employee results in shutdown." Firing the corrupt VP means he's no longer an employee and Robocop is clear to blow him away. Is this much different from the rules-lawyering and tricky language employed in folk-lore through the ages? Your classic "deal with the devil" story is always about giving the victim what he asked for in a way that completely ruins what he wants. Ask Satan for a bigger wang, he'll give you one so large it won't fit in any human orifice.

Is there any plausible reason for a vampire to be afraid for a cross? Perhaps if it's been blessed which implies the action of some sort of clerical magic. But if it's just someone fashinoning sticks together into a given shape, it implies that the creature is in some way bound by the very sight of the shape, a sort of post-hypnotic suggestion providing a means of controlling it. If a vampire were created as a living weapon, especially one that is physically stronger than its masters, control techniques known to the master would be useful. A weakness to silver could be exploited but how many people would know to bless water?

Creating Life 

We have mythological examples of the homonculus which is an artificial human created from the seed of man. They are living beings who might not possess souls depending upon the tradition you follow.

Likewise there is the tradition of the golem, a creature of clay animated by the Jewish God's magic when a Hebrew word is written on his forehead. Erasing a letter changes the word for life to death and the golem falls silent.

Only a Son of the Line of So-and-So Can Do This 

 Does the daemon recognize the divine right of kings, the nobility of a lineage? Or does it have a DNA lock that can only be unlocked by members of a certain family? And therefore any bastard of that family could become a valuable tool for their opponents? The rightful scion sleeps with an attractive wench 14 years ago and now his illegitimate son appears to have just as much right to the ancestral resources as he. If the enemies of his family have both the heir and the appropriate summoning rituals, the

The Ancient, Legendary McGuffin of This and That 

Given what we can store digitally these days and the understood density of genetic data, it becomes very feasible to have a convenient, portable doodad that has major importance. You really could fit the technical readouts of an entire battlestation into an astromech droid or a jewel-encrusted, avian statuette from a particular Mediterranean island.

The Takeaway

We've all joked about appeasing the IT gods, acts of worship and sacrifice to achieve our workaday goals. But as computers advance, as the direct interface becomes more natural and the underlying architecture more arcane, could we really come full circle and return to the days of yore, not petitioning the Delphic Oracle but the Oracle database for advice? When we encounter intelligent agents not just in cyberspace but the real world, will we present tokens of authentication? If the predictions of science fiction inspired the idiom by which the future was fashioned, could not fantasy and magic provide a new idiom that we will design towards, a self-fulfilling prophecy of the future?


  1. Cheap shot incoming ...
    The self-aware fantasy author acknowledges himself as such; those that do not promulgate a religion. Science Fiction is about the world that isn't but could be.

    Basically, you describe the Machine Cult trope, as seen most visibly in the Warhammer 40 000 setting. In fact, you should work for Games Workshop, you would probably come up with a better and far more coherent setting that what they are doing...

    I'm not a big fan of this trope myself, but that's just personal taste. Though, using it to explain away a 'classical' heroic fantasy setting would give a quite bizarre result, IMHO. For example, if all magic in LotR is explained by post-singularity technology, then the tone of the work shifts completely, all the struggles of the varied heroes seem pointless, the struggle of dolls in a sinister masquerade. The seemingly benevolent valars and maiars are now manipulators voluntarily keeping people in ignorance for no visible reason, and the fact that they seem to be stuck in medieval stasis takes darker undertones.

    I'm not saying that this trope can't be used well (giving the success of the War40k franchise, they are doing something right), but it has to be done in its own way, instead of simply using it to build a 'classical' Heroic Fantasy world.
    Unless you are fine with the dark undertones of foolish humans pointlessly struggling with things they (stupidly) lost control and knowledge of, or even worse, who are voluntarily maintained in this senseless masquerade by some other beings.

  2. I don't really see the difference. Eru or Illuvatar is the creator god in Rings. Everything that follows from Melkor to Sauron is due to what he set in motion.

    If you adhere to Christian theology, it's the same situation. God created good and evil. Apologists said evil is the price to pay for free will but if God were truly omnipotent he could make us perfect, with knowledge of good an evil and the wisdom to choose good. That we are as flawed as we are means he is either incapable of doing better or a sadist.

    So I don't see how post-singularity and made by magic are thematically incompatible.

  3. Count me in the apologist side, then. Being created perfect so you will choose good over evil mean that you indeed have no choice. And sometimes, you know, I just want to choose evil (there are days I do hope there is nothing after death, because I don't know what kind of afterlife I'd really deserve), and be free to do so. If I didn't, the times I choose good would mean nothing. And a perfect society would have no room for change. Being human, for me, means being able to change things.
    Which doesn't mean that I don't have a list of questions longer than my arm if I ever happen to meet a creator God.

    But my point here, while it is tangential to why the hell don't God act more if He exists and such, is not exactly the same. Those post-singularity beings didn't create an entire Universe and let it run, only intervening in its youth. They created another world in the same Universe they live. They even continue to live in this very world. Melkor is in the middle of the mortal lands, and some hero even occasionally go bash him in the face.
    So why don't they give mortals stuff to fight back effectively? If they have the tech, nothing prevent them to do so.
    It can be argued that last time they did intervene, they blew half the world up. But that's bullshit, as post-singularity entities could just give them better swords, assault rifles and powered armours. Giving how well they do with middle-age stuff, they would utterly stomp him.
    More generally, they use their tech in a stupidly inefficient way. Why build a freaking ring as a power converter, who works in such a convoluted way, instead of just building RBoDs?
    So it means that some people behind the scenes are actively making sure that this very expensive and cruel masquerade continues, or someone set it up by mistake, the kind of screw-up making Chernobyl look like an insignificant oops. Either way, it's very dark. Particularly as I can't think about any explanation that would make sense and not involve a very evil or twisted mind.
    Unless their tech do work in the way of magic, but then it's psionic-based tech, being ascended to a higher plane or such things.

    On the other hand, if their tech actually look like tech to us, but is treated like magic by them, it can work. It can even be a quite bright setting, where this way of treating technology is more of a quirk. After all, seeing someone shouting 'Come on, work! WORK!' at his computer is more funny than grim.
    All this doesn't mean that there wouldn't be similarities, and the ones you point out are quite interesting.
    And for all of their many falling, War40k chainsword-wielding space marines (and their heavy tank/giant mecha supports) do look cool.

    In fact, it could be even be taken further. Magic doesn't look technology, magic is technology. Someone being able to code a robot then is indeed a magician. He can explain his arts, you can read magic treaties, learn it, but it is still mysterious words and formulas for the non-initiated (If you tried to talk about some technical stuff like programming with your family, you probably know what I'm talking about).
    This world may not feel that different from the fantasy ones where magic is widespread like, say, Dungeons and Dragons, Fullmetal Alchemist and many others.
    (Fun fact, I remember the word 'spell' being used for special abilities in Starcraft back in the day, despite most of them being purely technological/biological.)
    It would not feel very different from our world or space opera settings, social interactions would just seem a little bit sillier, for us.

    To conclude, IMHO classical, tolkien-esque high fantasy can't be trivially transposed to a post-singularity setting, but a high-tech or post-singularity setting can indeed be transformed into a high fantasy setting.

  4. Fun fact, back in the day when I did contemplate the idea of writing fanfic, I thought about a XXIIIe century Earth man being sent to the early LotR Arda following a freak accident with an absurdly ancient alien artefact found in the asteroid belt. (Ugoliant is an alien, after all. Whatever artefact she may have brought with her would have been the receptor).

    Then, his very modern, high-tech-raised mindset would be let loose on the very, very different way of thinking of everyone there. Having him trying to figuring out the rules governing magic, finding loopholes in prophecies, applying modern concepts in economics, military and governance could have been quite fun. Not necessarily new tech, though.
    (I also wanted to explore the mostly unseen East Earth. There would have been many, many fascinating stories to tell there and bring back the mysterious Orient)

    So it was precisely to play on the differences between modern/science-fiction and heroic fantasy settings that it would have been interesting. (The other way around, someone actually knowing magic landing in a modern society is also interesting, but has been done more often, AFAIK.)
    Note that it was not to bring new tech, as it has been done by others IIRC. He wouldn't have been a tech guy. (More of a high-ranked Resistance-like officer, with a past as a special operative. So adaptable guy, with many interesting if not technical skills, for example.)

    I would have had to make him immortal (thanks to the progresses of medical sciences) because of the loooong time-scales involved, and then the risk of wank would have emerged, though. To say nothing about the risks of Marty Sue. And the risks of a Mighty Whitey trope, where only someone from our obviously superior society, once gone native, can become their leader and lead them to victory/brighter tomorrows/Capitalism land/Hippie-land.

    In the end, I had a quite advanced story in my head, with what I thought at the time as 'nice twists'. (Yes, he ends up as a dark lord at one time. A competent, genre-savvy one. Is someone surprised? Also, the guy being sent to Arda, and everything next happening there, would have been the twist at the end of the first, straight SF part.)
    But I didn't find a reason to write fanfic when I can write original stories anyway.

  5. "Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
    Then he is not omnipotent.
    Is he able, but not willing?
    Then he is malevolent.
    Is he both able and willing?
    Then whence cometh evil?
    Is he neither able nor willing?
    Then why call him God?"
    - Epicurus

    If God is omnipotent, he can do anything, even the impossible. He can make the lamb lie down with the lion. So he could make humans inherently good while still having freewill. Otherwise the whole theological premise falls apart. (see above)

    Now if we're talking about anything other than Eternal, Perfect, and Timeless God as Creator, I would agree. The dumbest man and the dumbest woman can still make a baby. Is it any different if smart people are working with test tubes and iron wombs? Our artificial creations could suffer our same moral failings. Trying to make universally moral creatures could have second order consequences that are hard to imagine. Asimov's robot stories weren't about when the rules worked, they were about when the rules broke down.

    Anyway, Melkor wasn't one of the good guys so his intervention is now how things should be. There's all manner of complicated rationales for why the lesser people must learn to do things for themselves rather than having a victory imposed upon them from outside.

    This might not even be a cop-out. We've seen that forcing people to do things seldom brings more than a grudging compliance. Remove the force, people stop following procedure. You will only see unenforced compliance when people believe in the idea, want to see it continue, and are personally invested in making it so.

    In such a case, Melkor is being an ass and the good guys are providing guidance in fighting him. Of course, he's a god-level threat. If we put it in parenting terms, dad says to son: "That grown man tried to attack you and I drove him off. You're not able to handle that kind of fight. The bullies at school are more your scale. This is your battle and you must fight it or you will never be able to defend yourself from adult-sized problems." Letting the free peoples of Middle-Earth go up against a Melkor-sized problem is like telling your son he'll have to stand up to the Mafia when they shake him down for his milk money.

    I think your objection comes down to whether the guiding powers of the setting are good or evil. Lord of the Rings says good will come out on top even as the magic in the world dwindles. Making "good" complicit in some cynical game of manipulation and evil changes the theme to dark fantasy which you consider incompatible?

  6. Those stories run a risk of disappearing up their own assholes, fanfic or original universe. ;) I liked what Leo Frankowski started in the Cross-Time Engineer series but the final books ended up being conservative wank and less like the original novels I enjoyed.

    I did have another idea of how to turn a Harry Potter story on its head. Kid is raised by rich, strict dad to be his successor. He'd rather be in the world he dreams about, a magical land of yadda-yadda. On his tenth birthday wizards come for him. There's a prophecy! He's the chosen one!

    He sees the magic kingdom, the princess he's destined to wed, all that will be his. Total wish fulfillment time. But then a rival group of wizards arrive with his nemesis from school. The nemesis fits the prophecy even better. He's the chosen one!

    What to do with our protagonist? Can't send him back, it's expensive. So he's made the lowest of the low in the kitchens. Beaten, molested, treated like shit. He's got nothing left but rage inside.

    He discovers that this wonderful fantasy kingdom is actually an elitist dystopia. If you are one of the pretty people, you're gold. But the whole fairy tale existence is based upon slavery and abuse.

    He finds the bones of an orcish sorcerer in a forgotten dungeon. His shade haunts the bones, unable to leave. He was imprisoned centuries ago, before the orcs degenerated to savages. He wants his revenge and so instructs the child in magic. He turns out to be a natural.

    After many years, he's learned what he needs to know and makes good his escape. From there he goes on to master magic and become the kind of tyrant-hero needed to overthrow the hypocrites. He styles himself the Dark Lord of Mirth.

    One scene that came to mind is when he learns the trick of getting back home to Earth and confronts his dad. He cups a fireball in his hand and tries to impress him. Dad fires off one of his own quicker than his son can see. When he comes to dad explains the score. He dreamed about that world, too. His wife came from there, had to go back, and they're playing the long game to get the family together and bring peace.

    The biggest problem the Dark Lord has is that he doesn't think he's really being productive. He's using force to occupy the space that a far worse government might take. It's rough medicine but he can't figure out a better approach.

    So when the questing heroes come to his Dark Tower for a fight, he says hello and has a little chat with them. He says things out and says "If you can show me a better way of doing it, I'll do it." And nobody has.

    Building his orc army would be fun. First order of business, no more killing. His best orcs would get killed in feuds. He convinces them that fighting is what matters, not killing. You kill your greatest foe, then what do you do? It's boring! No, you defeat him, let him live, and he comes back redoubling his effort to defeat you. Competition makes you stronger. And squishy humans, why, it would be harder to not kill them than kill them in a battle! So the sign of the skillful orc is winning without killing.

    Each new town he liberates he calls the elders together and gives his terms. They're all waiting to hear something horrible like what the Mongols would do and come away surprised. "Wow. Being enslaved by the Dark Lord is actually reasonable." He introduces the idea of social services, a safety net, education and opportunity.

    The real kicker is when the scryers of the corrupt fantasy kingdom reread their prophecy. They didn't just find two chosen ones, two messiahs. One was the Messiah, to reinvigorate the old order; the other is the Dark Messiah, the one to upend it.


  7. I'd say that the impossible, by definition, can't be done, even by an omnipotent being. The subtlety is that my definition of 'omnipotent' is 'who can do everything possible', or it would segfault the Universe. That said, I can see why people disagree with that.
    At the end of the day, my approach of theology ends up as "wait and see". If there's something, I'll know it soon enough. If there isn't, well, why would I care? I'll never know it anyway.
    But we digress...

    You pointed out the problem I have with making LotR a post-singularity setting : Melkor is too much of a threat. Having evils to overcome to grow can be justified, but not at this scale. So even if this was not planned by the 'good guys', if they really are post-singularity beings, they should have taken some measures to even it.
    And seeing how even the bad guys use said post-singularity tech in an impossibly inefficient way, they are either in the masquerade (and thus Melkor's level of threat is part of the plan), or those beings are really not able to use technology correctly, and something went very, very wrong with their programming.
    In the first case, it's dark fantasy because someone or something very twisted is needlessly cruel with entire civilisations.
    In the second case, it's dark fantasy because people are trapped in a needlessly cruel situation by a cosmic accident.
    Now, I consider it incompatible in the sense that it completely changes the theme, as well as the way we read what happens. It means that at the end, it's not the same story anymore. So it could be done, and some people would probably like it more, while others would like it less. (I would probably like it less, but that's personal taste.) The important thing is that it would be in fact a different story.

  8. Heh, sounds like a fun idea for a novel. I always liked the idea of a competent Dark Lord, who happens to follow the Evil Overlord List...

    For what I read, though, making those deconstructions can be tricky. For example, taking a trope and simply subverting it (the Light who happens to be the bad guys, and the Darkness the good guys, for example) often feels like just a big Take That to it. Some people do manage to pull it off, though, by also making it a reconstruction (in fact, there are good and bad things in both the Light and the Darkness).
    So in this story, there would be the risk that it feels like a big Take That to fairy tales (be it voluntary or not, mind you).

    The other risk I'd see is to make it a 'benevolent-dictator-wank'. In the absolute, yeah, a benevolent and competent dictator may be the best (Hobbes' hegemon). Though, History shows us how rare they are. (And far rarer, sadly, than those who are shown as such.)
    As long as the story isn't unsubtly telling us about "how great a benevolent dictator is", though, things should be fine.
    (It was done best in Legend of Galactic Heroes, I'd say. But they cheat by having one of those in the Empire side, but an equally genius democracy-idealist guy in the Alliance side. And, of course, only asking the questions, but letting you answer it...)

    The fact is, a Dark Messiah is by definition a charismatic (mostly) benevolent dictator, of the 'necessary evil' kind.
    Where it becomes interesting is that as good as they are, those guys will also make mistakes. Very costly mistakes, as they are absolute rulers and people do follow them trustingly.
    The only historical example I can think of who has resemblances with a Dark Messiah is Napoleon (to continue on what I was responding on Rocketpunk Manifesto), and while he did improve lots of things and let a legacy we are still living on, he also led very, very bloody (and costly) wars, that he could and should have at least partially avoided.
    And he was a guy talented in so many fields that you couldn't put it in fiction and keep it believable.

    So I think the point is that, while he can be ultimately successful at the end, the Marty Sue pitfall is even bigger than before. Because as a human, he needs to be flawed, and as a Dark Messiah, any flaw will end up costing much to many.

    Note that I'm not trying to sound negative or anything, just pointing out potential problems, that I saw in some other works.
    Now, I'd be very curious to read this story someday...

    Btw, if you want to turn Harry Potter on its head, there's a simpler way (and some people probably already did it somewhere).
    You have an absurdly powerful magic. People who can invoke matter out of nowhere, teleport at will at all range...
    You have one guy who, with very little knowledge of modern technology, built a frikkin' flying, invisible, sentient car. Out of his spare time.
    What would a determined team of operatives/Resistance/terrorists/whatever would do with good knowledge of how things really work? Spell-loaded Gatling guns? Teleporting flying battleships? Nuke telefrags? Orbital kinetic strikes? Matter-energy conversion spells?
    And yet, no one seems to have done it (the world is still there). They don't even think about simple stuff like, you know, putting a steel plate between them and the 'unstoppable death spell' stopped by any solid object.
    Why don't anyone do it?

    ... uh, it's, eh ... Oh, I know! A wizard did it.

    Fine, so some wizard did put a giant world-spell some centuries or millennia ago, that prevents people do think about doing so.
    But some dude still did it on his spare time. The spell must be wearing out...

  9. Your definition of the omnipotent fits with what Charlie Stross calls "weakly godlike." They are not supernatural, work within the physical constraints of the universe, but anything that can be done they can do. They are of the universe, not beyond it.

    The Christian definition for omnipotence way beyond that. "A deity is able to do absolutely anything, even the logically impossible, i.e., pure agency." Not just strongly godlike but supremely godlike.

    That's their argument. As far as a simulated reality goes, even a weakly godlike power instantiating a secondary world inside a simulation space could appear strongly godlike to anyone inside. Resurrection of the dead would just restore a vector from an earlier save state. Reversing time, altering physical constants, it's just editing the source. I don't know if the godlike power could violate formal logic but he might create an illusion of such that remains self-consistent within the simulation.

    Another take on the post singularity fantasy setting could be that the good gods destroyed the evil gods but in a mutually-assured destruction sort of way. Which means that the survivors are left among the ruins of incomprehensibly advanced singularity civilization, some artifacts broken, some remaining but mysterious. Self-reproducing servitors could be released into the wild to become part of the new ecology. Sapient stewards of the environment might resemble Ents. The lesser servants of the gods might live mysteriously and in remote colonies like the Elves, dedicating their remaining years to cleaning up the most dangerous of the damaged artifacts before they themselves cease to function.

    In this case, orthohumans would represent the "last known good backup" for humanity pre-singularity and putting them back on the post-singularity world gives them a second chance at civilization.

    What you basically have is a rehash of the whole "with great power comes great responsibility" line with the caveat "humans are cognitively ill-equipped to handle great power." Thus the singularity entities had the power of gods but the weakness of man. Big boom, ruins remain.

    As an added twist, the angels were supposed to be perfect beings lacking in freewill and therefore incapable of worshiping God properly. Lucifer's fall, of course, seems to contradict that. But weak man was created to have freewill and thus be capable of worship.

    So in this post-singularity world, the sapient servitors without freewill could still be going about their tasks while humans are left to sort out their own destinies. In the thousands of years since the singularity empires would rise and fall and technology researched. Possibly the only time the "Elves" might directly intervene is when an artifact is found that gives too much power, that raises it beyond a playground fight with fists to a playground fight with guns.

    Yeah, that flavor does taste a lot different. Superficially similar but drifts apart when you get into it.

  10. You are right that Take That! stories become boring. And there's a trend in wish-fulfillment scifi of saying "Dictatorships are great so long as I get to be the dictator." Antagonists all seem like they must be caricatures of people the author doesn't like in his own life and are little more than bowling pins set up for him to knock down.

    I think that what you would get with a realistic benevolent dictator is a risk of bubble mentality. When you are isolated from the real world you are making decisions no longer based on a grounded understanding of how things are. You are at the mercy of your advisers. It's all too easy to become an utter prick.

    The flaws have to be there in his character, I agree. But if used intelligently, how he addresses those flaws can make the plot better.

    This can also work us back around to the previous question of why godlike heroes don't fix all the problems. An answer to that could be given by some godlike hero with crazy mental powers who ran projections forward to see the consequences of his actions. This hero knows that by doing such things he limits his options, constraints the future to a path of greater control, greater tyranny, all starting from a desire to do good but ultimately turning to ugliness. He could see what he would become and rejects it as intolerable.

    The pitfalls you point out in the Dark Messiah character are certainly there. Ignoring them is the only mistake. Exploring the ramifications are what would make the story interesting.

    I think that when it comes to magic weapons, the flashy stuff is being like Superman with invulnerability, flying, shooting heat rays and the like. It's cool, makes for great television, is attention-getting. But I think the mental side of it is a lot more sinister. Comic book characters are pretty much using magic, regardless of whether we call it a radioactive spider, gamma rays or super-science. It's magic. What's the scariest stuff to consider? Mind-reading. Mind-control. Perfect mimicry. The person who has those powers might be otherwise completely ordinary, incapable of fighting, looks bad in a leotard, just boring, and yet they could be the most dangerous person in the world.

    It's the stuff people overlook that's the most interesting, like when a genie gives you wishes and you don't think of wishing for more wishes. *facepalm* Why didn't I think of that?

  11. Your definition of the omnipotent fits with what Charlie Stross calls "weakly godlike."

    Not really. I'm fine with an omnipotent God screwing with the laws of thermodynamics, creating matter out of nowhere and anything funny like that. What even an omnipotent God can't do is "violate formal logic", as you say it.
    In this particular case, formal logic dictates that if I have freewill, I can choose evil. And not even an omnipotent (or strongly godlike) being can change that.
    Christians I discussed it with all follow this definition of 'omnipotent', btw. They won't expect God to be able to do something logically impossible. Now, they were all European Catholics (and moderate, I have a hard time discussing with extremists, for some reason), maybe others have a different take on it.
    And the good news is, if God happens to be a jerk, we'll just have to divide by zero to win!

    About the angels' freewill, I'll point out that this is the Muslim belief. Which is why Iblis is a Djinn, not an Angel. Christians, AFAIK, says that Angels are out-of-time beings. As such, they can choose, but only once. Interestingly, it seems that the belief of the first Hebrews was that Satan (which was a title, roughly meaning the Tester IIRC), was in fact a regular Angel working for God, who got the 'Devil's advocate' job against humans. I don't know about modern Jews, though.

    I like this take on post-singularity setting. Mixing post-singularity and post-apocalypse may indeed have fun results.
    I would personally go for a more straight SF setting (again, personal taste), but having it following the Heroic Fantasy tropes could have quite interesting results.

  12. Theology is a moving target and as snarly to keep up with as comic books. I would no sooner debate a religious person on the doctrine of the faith than a comic book guy over Marvel vs. DC.

    The idea of post-apocalypse post-singularity feeling fantasy-like would simply be a byproduct of humans being incapable of conceiving of the power of the singularity entities and thus perceiving things in a magical sense.

    If the humans were put on an Earth in a comfortable nature preserve with clean water, good food to eat, and a life of painless ease, you could consider it a Garden of Eden. There might be several scattered across the planet. Anyone who lusted for more than what was provided could upset the system and cause a Fall. Or, if more robustness is engineered into the system, the lustful are simply expelled, allowing the pure to remain behind.

    In this case, the Gardens could correspond to the Elf-lands and the humans living within are in harmony with the servitors who have the role of elves and teachers.

    The humans who rejected paradise scrape and struggle to build lives for themselves out in the wilderness and repurpose scraps of the high technology.

    Now, what could someone want in the Garden that they can't have? What would be forbidden? Domination and subjugation. You can't give in to your darker fantasies. You have to leave to accomplish this.

    How happy is a killer without victims, a sadist without a toy to break down and destroy slowly over time?

    And this then backs into the gnostic view of things. Anyone who lives outside the Gardens is trapped in a cycle of despair and misery and might not even realize there's a better way. The rulers would be like the gnostic demiurge, seeking to keep them enslaved in ignorance. Anyone who ventures out from the Gardens to minister to the people risk the wrath of the rulers. Those who follow them can return to the Gardens.

    Or to look at it another way, the Gardens are incubators for new humanity. You have to leave the Gardens to become adults. There's a constant cycle of fall and failure outside the Gardens but people try again. The goal is to live freely and as a good, stable society without the constant supervision of the servitors.

    Or to look at it another different way, the Gardens are where the servitors call home, they have no special interest in teaching humans, though humans are welcome to live in the Gardens in an idyllic, pre-tech state. If they wish to strive and learn for themselves, they must do so beyond the Gardens and are free to do so only as long as they don't start taking up the techno-magic that will cause another singularity kerfluffle.

    There are certainly ideas to play with here.

  13. Hard ideas to play with, if the initial conditions are not right yoou end up with a self induced mess.

    Ambiguity is probably a good place to go. I think of Princess Mononoke by Hayao Miyazaki as a good starting point. No one in the movie is 100% good or 100% evil, and when they start trying to mess with the Spirit of the forest they unleash frightening unintended consequences (the Spirits having a totally different set of goals and values than the humans). If you have not watched it, do so now.

    One other trope I have played with from time to time is the "man out of time". We often think of this person or persons as being equipped with fabulous powers, but if you were sent into the Dark ages you probably would not have any specific attribute that would set you above a warrior or artisan. Rather, you have a totally different skillset and historical knowledge or how societies can be organized for greater efficiency. Even if you klnow nothing about military tactics, just being able to introduce pikes or crossbows (as the local vizier) would put "your" kingdom head and shoulders above the competition, since you can tap far more manpower in a militarily efficient manner. Would be conquerors would break their teeth on your armies, and you would overrun the rival bands if you so chose. Similarly, reorganizing the economy would unleash resources that are latent in the society, and you would soon have a higher standard of living and more resources to do "stuff" with.

  14. Wiki's a wonderful thing. With a badly-constructed phrase I could find the story I was thinking of. :)

    "Poul Anderson's short story The Man Who Came Early, in which an American soldier stationed in Iceland is sent back to the Viking Era after being hit by lightning. Luckily the Icelandic language has not changed much since then. All his attempts to change history fall flat on their face. When he tries to show the Vikings how to make compasses, he has no idea where to find or mine magnetic ores. When he tries to show them how to build more modern sailing vessels, the Vikings point out that such vessels are too cumbersome to dock anywhere where there is not a ready built harbor, an obvious rarity in that time period. The Vikings find the matches he brought with him impressive, but he has no idea how to make more. The only knowledge he has of any use is modern martial arts. In the end the soldier runs afoul of his ignorance of Viking legal customs and is killed. The story's main point is that victims of this trope don't really have much chance of introducing future inventions because most advances are useless without an advanced societal infrastructure to support them."

    The first four books of Leo Frankowski's Cross-Time Engineer series are pretty much the best (well, most fun) exploration of this concept I've ever seen. While it's long on wish-fulfillment, the execution was really enjoyable. The later books in the series deteriorated a bit, felt skeevier. I don't know what his politics were like when he was younger but he became a Baen-style conservative libertarian with all manner of weird notions about this and that. He died in 2008 so I will not speak ill of the dead.

    "Polish hiker Conrad Schwartz, in a drunken stupor, bypasses all kinds of security and stumbles into a historical-research time portal (created, coincidentally, by his cousin) and awakens in thirteenth-century Poland, where he has just ten years to industrialize and unite his nation before the Mongol hordes arrive and kill everybody."

  15. Hmm, I had never heard of that story, must look it up.

    You might not need to go very far to destabilize things economically. Jerry Pournelle used the example of horse collars. Up to the Middle Ages, a horse could do 10X the work of a man, but ate 10X as much as a man, providing no incentive to utilize animal power to suppliment/replace slaves. A horse collar allowed the horse to use its strength more effectively (prior to that, the ancient harness cold strangle a horse attempting to pull a large load) and do 20X the work of a man. It was now economically more effective to use horses than to use slaves. Trying to recreate indoor plumbingor at least flush toilets cold also have interesting ramifications...

  16. i don't doubt that new technology applied judiciously could change everything. But I think it's not so much the technology but the politics that would be the key. The Yankee in this court had better curry the right favor and make sure he's lining appropriate pockets, appearing to be the creature of the rich and powerful men who could have his throat slit with a word the moment they felt he was up to funny stuff.

    We've seen how violently established power structures react to political and technological ideas developed in actual history, stuff that's A plus B leads to C. Can you imagine how badly they would react to something that's from steps U and V getting ported back to the time of step B?

    If time travel is available, I'd question whether or not advancing a primitive society is the smart idea. I think it would work better with the idea of a parallel world with the only radical invention being a dimensional portal. Then it becomes a question of a small group of people conspiring to change a world. "We live on Earth in the 21st century. By the standards of the 14th century, we are kings. By the standards of the 21st century, half of us are laid off chumps. But here we are with a working dimensional portal. It was supposed to be a teleporter. Pentagon thought we'd screwed up, axed the project. Only figured out how to fix it afterward.

    "So, Gontlemen. Here we sit in my garage. We have a portal to a world that is filled with humans at a roughly 200 BC tech level. There are primitive barbarians and sophisticated imperialists. A few people live in luxury, the rest are doing the nasty, brutish and short thing. Can we make a paradise of this world? This will be more than a lifetime commitment. We are committing ourselves, our families, our descendants to this task. We break it, we own it. We could end this no better than the jerks who have made a mess of our own world. Or we could change everything, and for the better.

    "Who's with me?"

  17. New technology, however applied would have second and third order effects that even the person importing the technology might not be aware of or able to control.

    You introduce plumbing, and now a guild of skilled artisans arise and siphon off tradespeople who used to make arms and armour. Voila, you only get to enjoy your flush toilet for five years before the invading tribes come and wipe you out. Survivors spread the story and soon plumbers are a shunned trade, plumbing is banned and downstream technological advances like hydraulics, waterwheels to power machinery etc. are aborted.

    On a broader scale, think of Jerry Pournelle once again. He pointed out that cars were predicted centuries before they actually appeared (Leonardo drew designs of clockwork powered "cars" and a steam powered car hit the roads in the early 1700's), but absolutely no one predicted drive ins, "parking" urban sprawl or any of the other millions of downstream effects of the automobile.

    More importantly, the really disruptive thing the man out of time might bring are ideas. Even just telling stories of how things were back home would get some people wondering why things are the way they are in the here and now, and if there wasn't a different way to do things to get to the "paradise" outlined by the man out of time. This might not even be a time traveller; imagine a cultured gentleman from the Res Publica Roma who is a trader has managed to go much further from the Empire than anyone else,perhaps blown across the Atlantic Ocean, for example. So long as the locals found him an interesting curiosity, they might keep him as a source of prestige among the other tribes, while some people attempted to recreate the artifacts he brought. If he made landfall in Mexico or Central America, he would be among the members of an alien but civilized people who have the organization, if not the technology of the Res Publica Roma to back their investigations of this strange man and his objects.

  18. Yup. The one everyone likes to cite is how the car and drive-in changed American sexual practices. I doubt anyone thought the printing press could lead to religious revolution. Nobody at the time of television's invention could imagine mindless reality shows even though they had the evidence of penny dreadfuls from previous generations.

    I think the new religious ideas could be extremely subversive, even if the moderns aren't trying to evangelize. Just basic science could fly in the face of religious teachings, especially if there are easily controvertible and anti-scientific claims made. Fire is the divine spark of God? No, it's rapid oxidation. Holy cripes! Everything I've been taught is a lie!