Friday, March 19, 2010

Quantum computing in the Neanderthal books and real life

Great blog post from Canadian computing trade journal ComputerWorld Canada about quantum computing in the novels of Robert J. Sawyer -- and now in reality. W00t!
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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Neanderthal Parallax began 10 years ago today

It was ten years ago today, on Thursday, February 17, 2000, that I wrote the first words for what became Hominids, the first volume of my "Neanderthal Parallax" trilogy.

That day, I wrote the opening below -- not one line of which made it into the final book -- leading up to establishing the setting as Sudbury, Ontario, where the nickel mines exist because of an asteroid impact:
Everyone has heard about the asteroid that may have felled the dinosaurs, and how if it hadn't hit, we might not be here.

But there have been many other asteroid impacts in Earth's past, and when this one crashed into Earth, the dinosaurs weren't yet even a twinkle in God's eye. If it hadn't hit, we would probably still be here, but they -- the others -- would not. This flying mountain, a hunk of detritus left over from the formation of the solar system that measured between one and three kilometers wide, brutally slammed into --

Into what? How to describe the rocks that bore this assault? Today, most of the world calls them the Canadian Shield, a vast horseshoe shaped region covering half the nation we refer to as Canada -- but when the impact occurred, Canada, and every other human construct, was still 1.8 billion years in the future.

Of course, in Canada, where everything would naturally be Canadian-this or Canadian-that, these rocks are sometimes called the Precambrian Shield instead, but --

But everything was Precambrian back when this colossal boulder, moving at fifteen kilometers per second, slammed into our world, setting it ringing like a giant bell in space. Although Earth had hosted life for two billion years by that point, none of it was yet multicellular. The first worms were another billion years in the future; jawless fish, the first vertebrates, were still 1.3 billion years away; and the first mammals -- ancestors to us, yes, and to them as well -- wouldn't appear for an additional three hundred million after that.
Carolyn didn't like that much, and the next day, Friday, February 18, 2000, I completely revamped the opening:
The darkness was absolute, more obsidian than Hitler's heart, darker than a rapist's soul.

Two kilometers beneath the Earth's surface, the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory waited patiently. At its core was a vast acrylic globe twelve meters across, its walls 2.5 centimeters thick, filled with 1,100 tonnes of heavy water, on loan from Atomic Energy Canada Limited; the globe was made up of XX curved pieces each measuring XXX -- the largest size that could fit down the mine shaft leading to the observatory.

Surrounding that sphere was a geodesic of photomultiplier tubes -- 9,600 of them, each cupped in a reflective parabola, each aimed inward toward the sphere. And surrounding that was a giant barrel-shaped container, ten stories tall, filled with ultrapure regular water.

The two kilometers of Canadian shield overhead protected the heavy water from cosmic rays. The shell of regular water absorbed the natural background radiation from the uranium and thorium in the granite gabbro, preventing any of it from reaching the heavy water. Indeed, nothing at all could penetrate into the heavy water except neutrinos; trillions passed through the Earth every second, and any one of them could travel through a block of lead a light-year thick with only a fifty-percent chance of hitting anything.

Heavy water is just like regular water in taste (or lack thereof) and appearance, and it behaves virtually identically in most chemical reactions.
Of course, that lacked any character or drama. The final, published version of Hominids, which came out in 2002, began thus:
The blackness was absolute.

Watching over it was Louise BenoƮt, twenty-eight, a statuesque postdoc from Montreal with a mane of thick brown hair stuffed, as required here, into a hair net. She kept her vigil in a cramped control room, buried two kilometers -- "a mile an' a quarder," as she sometimes explained for American visitors in an accent that charmed them -- beneath the Earth's surface.

The control room was next to the deck above the vast, unilluminated cavern housing the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory. Suspended in the center of that cavern was the world's largest acrylic sphere, twelve meters -- "almost fordy feet" -- across. The sphere was filled with eleven hundred tonnes of heavy water on loan from Atomic Energy of Canada Limited.

Enveloping that transparent globe was a geodesic array of stainless-steel struts, supporting 9,600 photomultiplier tubes, each cupped in a reflective parabola, each aimed in toward the sphere. All of this -- the heavy water, the acrylic globe that contained it, and the enveloping geodesic shell -- was housed in a ten-story-tall barrel-shaped cavern, excavated from the surrounding norite rock. And that gargantuan cavern was filled almost to the top with ultrapure regular water.

The two kilometers of Canadian shield overhead, Louise knew, protected the heavy water from cosmic rays. And the shell of regular water absorbed the natural background radiation from the small quantities of uranium and thorium in the surrounding rock, preventing that, too, from reaching the heavy water. Indeed, nothing could penetrate into the heavy water except neutrinos, those infinitesimal subatomic particles that were the subject of Louise's research. Trillions of neutrinos passed right through the Earth every second; in fact, a neutrino could travel through a block of lead a light-year thick with only a fifty-percent chance of hitting something.

Still, neutrinos poured out of the sun in such vast profusion that collisions did occasionally occur -- and heavy water was an ideal target for such collisions. The hydrogen nuclei in heavy water each contain a proton -- the normal constituent of a hydrogen nucleus -- plus a neutron, as well. And when a neutrino did chance to hit a neutron, the neutron decayed, releasing a proton of its own, an electron, and a flash of light that could be detected by the photomultiplier tubes.

At first, Louise's dark, arching eyebrows did not rise when she heard the neutrino-detection alarm go ping; the alarm sounded briefly about a dozen times a day, and although it was normally the most exciting thing to happen down here, it still didn't merit looking up from her copy of Cosmopolitan.

But then the alarm sounded again, and yet again, and then it stayed on, a solid, unending electric bleep like a dying man's EKG.
You can read more of the published opening here.

Hominids went on to win the 2003 Hugo Award for best novel of the year, and it was the first volume of a trilogy. I'm very proud of the finished book, and pleased to look back on its humble origins a decade ago.
Robert J. Sawyer online:

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Take that, you filthy Barast!

My friend Melody Friedenthal sent me a link to this story about new evidence that a Homo sapiens speared a Homo neanderthalensis.

In my novel Hominids and its sequels, I argue that our kind of humanity (referred to as Gliksins by the Neanderthals in those books) were responsible for the demise of the Neanderthals (which call themselves Barasts in my books).
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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lovely review of my Neanderthal books

The business blog Knights on the Road has just posted a very nice review of all three volumes of my Neanderthal Parallax trilogy (Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids).

You can read the review, by Reg Nordman, here.

Healthy day!
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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my! Trilogies everywhere you look!

My friend Melody Friedenthal asked me an intriguing question this morning:
At what point in your creative process did you decide that Wake et al., would be a trilogy? And was it the same point for your first trilogy (or 2nd) or was the first one more of the publisher's choice (as in "this is too long to publish as a single novel; let's break it up into a trilogy")?

Has your plotting evolved over time to be more aware of this sort of thing?
My answer is might be of interest to other writers, so I'm sharing it here:

I've sold twenty novels, and almost half of them -- nine books -- are parts of trilogies:

The Quintaglio Ascension: Far-Seer, Fossil Hunter, Foreigner.

The Neanderthal Parallax: Hominids, Humans, Hybrids

WWW: Wake, Watch, and Wonder.

(As it happens, right now, I'm in the final few hours of polishing Watch before submitting it to my publishers; it's due on Monday.)

Each of these trilogies had a different genesis.

I wrote Far-Seer as a standalone -- no intention of doing a series (I'd even killed off the main character in the last chapter).

When it was done, my agent said let's try to sell a sequel, and we did (as with the first episode of Hill Street Blues, where Hill and Renko were gunned down in cold blood, my character's fatal wounds suddenly became merely serious injuries, although I, at least, had the luxury or rewriting the ending so it was apparent that he'd lived).

And then the publisher decided to ask me for another sequel after the first two were done. But after that, I wanted to write something very different (With humans! On Earth! In the near future!), and so I wrote The Terminal Experiment instead of continuing the series (which I think ended at a fine point, anyway).

For the Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, it was actually my then-British publisher who said the only things selling in the UK were trilogies or on-going series, and so my next project should be a trilogy; otherwise, Hominids would have been a standalone. The original working title for the standalone book would, in fact, have been Neanderthal Parallax.)

After I turned in the third book, Hybrids, my editor, David G. Hartwell, said I could go on writing Neanderthal books as long as I wanted to -- but I wanted very much to do something different at that point. (For more on this, see my essay Commiting Trilogy: The Origins of "The Neanderthal Parallax".)

For the WWW trilogy, I actually sold it as a standalone (called Webmind) to Tor, and after struggling with it for over a year found I just couldn't do it as a single book; the idea was too big.

So I had a meeting with David G. Hartwell (my editor) and Tom Doherty (Tor's publisher) and told them that, and said I'd like to fulfill the contract instead with a new standalone, and wrote Rollback instead. I then re-envisioned Webmind as a trilogy (writing an outline for it that now bears very little resemblance to what I'm actually doing -- I really hate doing outlines).

If I had my druthers, I'd never write sequels or trilogies -- at least not one book after another; I much prefer writing standalones. But sometimes that's not what the market wants, and sometimes the idea can't be handled properly in a single book.

On the other hand, part of what I hate about trilogies is working back-to-back on the same project for years: I take a year or so to write a book, and spending three years in a row on any set of characters is enough.

But to my surprise I was recently asked by David Hartwell if I'd consider writing more Quintaglio books (and I might), and I would indeed like to write more about the Neanderthals at some point.

So, who knows about the future? (Answer, according to the Lawgiver in the last Planet of the Apes movie: "Perhaps only the dead." But I digress ...)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Neanderthal genome

In my novels Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids, I argued that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens probably didn't crossbreed in nature. At the time I was writing those books, it was a very contentious issue in paleoanthropology, with some vociferously arguing that, in fact, Neanderthals hadn't really gone extinct at all, but that we'd just co-opted them into our own gene pool.

But the first-draft of the Neanderthal genome, released just yesterday, shows that Neanderthals were indeed a distinct species that didn't intermix genetically with us.

I found it intriguing that yesterday, a special US federal court ruled that the case, also vociferously fought, that vaccinations caused autism had no scientific merit.

And, of course, yesterday was Darwin's 200th birthday, and we all know people who have devoted their lives to arguing that he was wrong.

I wrote a story called "Flashes," first published in Lou Anders's 2006 anthology FutureShocks, and since reprinted in my own collection Identity Theft and Fiona Kelleghan's anthology The Savage Humanists, in which SETI succeeds and we receive the long-sought-after Encyclopedia Galactica, and droves of scientists who have spent their careers arguing positions that were totally off base end up committing suicide.

It was a grim little story, but I do wonder how people who spend their whole lives advocating something that turns out to be wrong make their peace with that. (Of course, the answer is that in many cases they don't: they refuse to accept the new evidence, because the cost of accepting it -- and realizing they've wasted so much of their time -- is too much to bear.)

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Interview for Fantascienza: Flash Forward, Neanderthals

In honor of the release of the Italian edition of my novel Humans, second volume of my Neanderthal Parallax trilogy, Sosio Silvio conducted a by-email interview with me, although many of the questions were actually about the upcoming Flash Forward TV pilot. The Italian version of the interview is online at here, and the orginal English is below.

Your novel Flash Forward has been chosen to be developed into a TV series. Can you tell us something about the idea on which the novel is based?

In 1975, when I was in grade 10, I founded my high-school's science-fiction club. Twenty years later, in 1995, we had a reunion party. We were all amazed at how differently our lives had turned out from what we'd expected. Several members of our group had been married and divorced in the interim, and practically no one had the job he or she thought they were going to get. Me, I'd been planning on becoming a paleontologist; Ted had his sights set on becoming a veterinarian; Rick was going to be a filmmaker; and Bruce was going to be a police officer.

Twenty years later, I was a science-fiction writer. Ted had become a computer programmer. Rick had become a lawyer. And the guy who wanted to be a cop was now a cordon bleu chef.

We all kept saying the same thing about our high-school days: if I had known then what I know now, how much better things would have been!

Well, a science-fiction writer can't hear a comment like that without wanting to put it to the test. And so the novel Flash Forward was born. In it, an experiment goes awry at CERN, the European Center for Particle Physics, causing the consciousness of everyone on Earth to jump ahead twenty-one years for a period of two minutes. Suddenly people know for an absolute fact how their lives, their careers, and their marriages are going to turn out. The novel details the impact such knowledge has, both for good and bad. Of course, a two-minute glimpse can be frustratingly ambiguous. Could you go ahead with a planned wedding knowing that two decades hence you would be married to someone else? How would you greet the imminent birth of your first child if you knew that he'd grow up to be a vicious, surly thug?

As with many of my novels, Flash Forward tries to combine a mind-stretching idea with a very human story. Indeed, I think science fiction is at its best when it lets us examine the human condition under circumstances that no one has ever encountered before -- that's what makes the genre anything but formulaic, and endlessly fascinating to write.

The story has been adapted for the TV series? There are important changes from the original story of the novel?

Brannon Braga and David S. Goyer have put their stamp on it, and, yes, they've made some changes. I've frankly been surprised about how concerned they've both been that I be comfortable with the changes: when you sell something to Hollywood, you give up creative control. But right from our first meeting in 2007, David and Brannon have seemed genuinely concerned that I be happy with what they've done. And, indeed, I am -- very happy.

We're hoping Flash Forward will run five or six 22-episode seasons, so they've had to expand my novel, which, if you filmed every scene in it, might have made an eight-hour miniseries, into over a hundred hours of drama, and I'm delighted with the very clever approach they've taken.

It's the first time that you sell a work to Hollywood?

I've had lots of books optioned before, and good screenplays have been written based on some of my novels, but nothing has ever actually gone into production. I'm absolutely thrilled, and my wife and I are heading down to Hollywood to watch the filming of the pilot.

Have you been involved in the development of the series?

Contractually, I am consultant to the series: I was paid to provide input to the pilot script, and will be paid to provide input to every episode of the series. I'm also contracted to write one of the first-season episodes. The novel is mine, but the series is David and Brannon's. I'm determined to help them realize their vision.

Have you met Brannon Braga? What do you think of him?

Yes, indeed. I was thrilled to meet Brannon. He is extremely intelligent, extremely creative, and a nice guy, to boot. I'm a long-time Star Trek fan, and Brannon, of course, co-authored "All Good Things ...," the finale of Next Generation, and First Contact, arguably the best of the Star Trek movies, so meeting him was a total thrill.

This month in Italy has been published Humans, the second book of the cycle The Neanderthal Parallax. I've really appreciated the first book, Hominids. Can you tell us something about this sequel?

The structure of the trilogy is this: In Hominids, the first book, a modern-day Neanderthal male -- the quantum physicist Ponter Boddit -- who lives in a parallel world where our kind of humanity is extinct, comes to our version of reality.

In the second volume, Humans, a modern day Homo sapiens female -- the geneticist Mary Vaughan -- travels to the Neanderthal version of reality.

And in the third, Hybrids, they try to discover the best of both worlds; ultimately, I think of it as a utopian series.

I hope to see that third volume, Hybrids, in Italy very soon. This is definitely the end of the story?

Yes, indeed. The series was conceived of as a trilogy at the start, and it ends with a definite bang. Some have actually taken me to task for providing definite conclusions: one of the plotlines deals with Ponter's atheism, a trait shared by all Neanderthals, and Mary's Roman Catholicism; another deals with Ponter's bisexuality and polyamory, again, a trait shared by all Neanderthals, and Mary's heterosexuality and monogamy. Those come to very definite climaxes in the third book, which, depending on your points of view, you'll either love or hate -- but, either way, I hope will make you think.

What are you writing now?

A trilogy about the World Wide Web gaining consciousness. The first volume, Wake, will be out in April 2009, to be followed by Watch and Wonder. Many people -- including my New York and Hollywood agents -- seem to think Wake is the best thing I've ever written; following that up with two sequels is daunting, but I'm working hard to make sure the next two books are just as good.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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Saturday, February 7, 2009

Obama's America includes atheists

In his inaugural address, Barack Obama said of America, "We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers."

In my 2003 novel, Hybrids, I had the next president of the United States (the one coming to office in 2009) refer to nonbelievers, too:
So, yes, indeed, now is the time to take longer strides. But it's not just time for a great new American enterprise. Rather, it's time, if I may echo another speech, for black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics -- and Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists, and men and women of all faiths, and men and women of none -- for individuals from every one of our 191 united nations, for members of every race and religion that make up our unique, varied brand of humanity -- to go forward together, in peace and harmony, with mutual respect and friendship ... [Chapter 25]
For me, it was key that the first post-Bush president acknowledge the large numbers of atheists and nonbelievers, and I'm delighted to see Obama do just that.

The only appearance by my president in Hybrids is through a series of excerpts from his first major speech, which appear in chunks at the beginnings of each chapter; I didn't explicitly say he was black, but I certainly implied it:
Four decades ago, my predecessor in the Oval Office, John F. Kennedy, said, `Now is the time to take longer strides -- time for a great new American enterprise.' I was just a kid in a Montgomery ghetto then, but I remember vividly how those words made my spine tingle ... [Chapter 5]
I'm very proud of the speech I wrote for the fictitious president (the full text of which is here), but am even prouder, as an often-conflicted American-Canadian dual citizen, that my real president had the courage to acknowledge us nonbelievers in his inaugural address.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site

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