Thursday, February 11, 2010

Today, I've been Charting This Quadrant of the Galaxy

Megalomania is a personality trait said to be common among RPG1 game moderators. Understandably, since many game moderators create a small world, often complete with their own laws of nature: and the people and creatures which live in that world.

For me, it was also a somewhat humbling experience. Or would have been, if I hadn't thought through just how complex reality is, before I got involved with RPGs. One time, playing with my kids, I had to suspend play because I'd misplaced a barony. We knew it was there: but I couldn't put my hands on the manila folder I kept all the details in.

It's a good thing I'm not God. But that's another topic: for another blog. (Like A Catholic Citizen in America - shameless, blatant plug for another of my blogs)

Where was I?


Subcreations (February 1, 2010)

Human aspirations and limitations.


Charting the Galaxy, a Half-Quadrant at a Time

So, what did I do with my time today?
  • Picked up some tax-related information at local clinics
  • Dropped some letters off at the post office
  • Went to the bank
  • Bought some coffee
  • Finished charting one quadrant of the galaxy
Don't be too impressed: All that last item means is that I've assigned positions for quite a few 'points of interest' in two eighth-section wedges of the Milky Way galaxy. A few of them are real, like Eta Carina and the Vela Supernova Remnant. Most, however, are figments of my imagination.

And none-too-detailed figments, at that: with a few exceptions.

It's a bit obsessive-compulsive of me, but I think I've got an excuse.

First, it's the sort of potentially-annoying, occasionally-pointless thing I do.

Second, and more importantly, I'm hoping that there'll be more more than one story in a setting I've been putting together. Much of the action takes place over a thousand years from now. Or, from the point of view of that prologue I posted:
"In ancient times, after humanity reached the stars, but before the Mandate of Heaven was restored to the Middle Kingdom...."
(June 23, 2009)
Individual stories may be slice-of-life vignettes, action-adventure space opera, or whatever. Taken as a whole, I'm aiming for epic scale.

So, I really don't want to write myself into a corner - or accidentally introduce something that feels nifty for one story, but complicates every story that follows.

Like the Racooters. That's what some humans call them. Their name for "people" is a short series of whistles, squeaks and clicks that's pronounceable (sort of) with a human vocal system - but which doesn't transliterate well into the Latin alphabet. The name "Racooter" comes from their appearance. Think a raccoon that's a little more massive than we are, and stretched out like an otter. The head bulges a lot more, above and behind the eyes - but that gives a general idea of their appearance.

The Racooters are good for at least one story - a family of them is looking for a piece of hardware that wandered off - and my oldest daughter and I have been talking through some aspects of their personalities, culture, and technology.

Where Have all the Aliens Gone?

If you're around my age (I was born during the Truman administration), you may recognize the song I'm jumping off from:

Where have all the aliens gone?
Long time looking
Where have all the aliens gone?
Where did they go?
Where have all the aliens gone?
We've not seen them: no, not one
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

Dubious 'alien abduction' stories and all notwithstanding, there isn't solid evidence that extraterrestrial microbes exist: let alone space alien proctologists. Ever notice, by the way, how the 'space aliens' of a few decades back were unaccountably interested in giving women pregnancy tests? Never mind.

I really don't buy the idea that humanity is, by some wild cosmic coincidence, at exactly the point where intelligent races die (horribly, of course) of pollution, global warming, nuclear winter, or whatever the crisis du jour is.

An idea that's been played with by speculative fiction authors is that the galaxy is crowded with aliens - who are scared silly of us. We don't see them, because they really, sincerely, don't want to be seen.

Or maybe we're on a sort of wildlife preserve. We don't see the aliens because they don't look all that much like us to begin with. more to the point, they're no more interested in making themselves known to us than entomologists are interested in revealing themselves to the termite mound they're studying. Keep going along that path, and you'll start wondering if we're in a zoo: or a laboratory.

Which has been done in some stories.

I'm going with another idea: that there's a fair number of non-human people out there. And, they really are non-human.

There's a very distinct possibility that Earth isn't a "Class M" planet in the "Star Trek" sense of the term: a planet that's right on the 50th percentile of suitability for biological life. (Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 5, 2009))

We may be on just about the smallest world that could possibly support life-as-we-know-it. Devastating as earthquakes and volcanoes are, we rely on them for recycling stuff that would otherwise collect on the ocean floors.

A bigger planet would, unless there's something seriously wrong with the mathematical models geologists use to explain how Earth works, have more tectonic activity - earthquakes and volcanoes - probably a thinner crust, and more plates getting sucked down, heated and sent back up through volcanoes.

People living on a bigger planet would have a harder time getting off it, once they developed the technology.

Even if they could get into orbit, I'm not convinced that they'd be interested.

"Doesn't Everybody Dream of Flying?"

"Maybe there's nobody else out there, or maybe most people live on planets where it's really, really hard to get into orbit. Or maybe we live on a planet where, for the last few million years, the environment favored creatures with a bit more brains than usual: who were willing to take insane risks.

"Like flying.

"Or riding a tower of explosives to an airless hell of barren rock. Several times.

"Across the galaxy, most people may be staying quietly at home, playing the local equivalent of pinochle or Mahjong, or whatever: and shuddering at the memory of crazy Uncle Eddy, who once made something he called a 'raft,' but - thankfully - never tried using it himself...."
(Apathetic Lemming of the North (December 5, 2009))
Remember: Non-human intelligences won't be human.

Which gets me back to that "quadrant of the galaxy" thing. I've placed - tentatively - 58 places where people got started. Including us. A few are more-or-less like us, physically and psychologically: like the Raccooters. Most aren't. Some died with no heirs, a long time ago. Some have been around for a really, really long time - the periodicals section of their analog to the Library of Congress would have documents that are tens of millions of years old. And maybe pictures of dinosaurs.

And some of the really old ones are, the way I'm setting it up, quite a bit like us. The way they think, anyway. Only they've been around for a whole lot longer.

That's where it gets interesting. There's a little spark of an idea that I intend to play with for a while.

Would We Realize That an Alien was Smarter than We are?

Speculative fiction authors have used the idea that space aliens don't just have better technology than we do: they're smarter. On the other hand, some of my favorite stories played with the (more rarely seen) notion that we're the brainy ones: and that the Galactic Protectorate has mile-long starships because they've been muddling through the research-and-development process for hundreds of thousands of years.

Then, they met humans.

You know, we could be scary.

But, let's say that we meet space aliens that are smarter than we are. A lot smarter.

Would we notice?

Maybe - but maybe not. What we might notice instead is that they take an awfully long time to get around to actually saying something.

Sort of like the way it's been suggested that dogs understand 'every word I say.' Like: "Spot, come here. I'm blah blah blah blah blah blah you'd blah blah come blah. Blah you blah blah go blah blah walk, Spot?"

If Spot wasn't a wolf whose ancestors we fiddled with until we had a stupid wolf that adores humans, Spot might feel that Master could just as easily have said: "Spot, I you come walk. Spot?" The syntax isn't right for English - but it gets the essentials of Master's statement. From Spot's point of view, and capacity to understand.

But that's another topic.

Related (to something, anyway) posts:
1 Role Playing Game. The best-known may be Dungeons and Dragons and Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. Decades ago, I ran a couple of campaigns in a variation of that game system. RPGs can be wonderfully engaging opportunities for getting together with friends for a sort of interactive storytelling, exercises in tactics and strategy, or social events that might interest a psychologist. And, for some, an opportunity to get upset about what those people over there are doing.

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