Month: June 2017

Review: The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Three Body Problem is a Chinese science fiction, which I admit was part of the appeal to me. I have been hearing about it off and on for years. It has won many awards. It is one of the few, if not only Chinese science fiction to gain such acclaim in the west.

Light spoilers ahead, you have been warned.

There are three main threads. The first starts in the communist revolution of China. The second is a video game modeled after the life of an alien race, and the last is set in modern times.
The first thread, set just after the revolution, defines why things are the way they are and provides an important context for the rest of the novel. Even before the big payoff the setting is interesting (if depressing) in its own right.
The video game in some ways is the most interesting. It uses human references and metaphors to tell the story of an alien race. Trying to understand what the game is about and why it is telling is part of the fun of the book.
The modern thread is more about watching outcomes then anything else. Things have been in motion for decades. Wang (main character) is trying to figure out what is going on.

One of the large ideas of the book is how people deal with knowing there are aliens. One of the ideas is that the type of aliens doesn’t matter. The fact that they exist is all that matters.
The science is impeccable. It was vitally important that the author understand how the process of science works for the plot of the book and he pulled it off easily.

The book is very good. It was a pleasure to read such a well thought out story that had so many layers.

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Sociopaths and Narcissists

A Sociopath is someone who lacks what are sometimes called the higher emotions: love, compassion, or a sense of shame. They only have the basic lizard brain emotions such as fear and anger. They lack the ability to feel sorry for anyone else, or any sense of empathy whatsoever.
A Narcissist is someone who has the higher emotions but only as they apply to themselves. Like sociopaths, they lack the ability to care about anyone else.

Depending on which study you are looking at, between 1% and 10% of the population in the west is either a sociopath or a narcissist.
Studies also show more than half the people in prison for violent crimes are sociopaths.

While most sociopaths and narcissists can blend in well, there are easy ways of testing for it. For example, upon seeing someone grievously hurt there are certain psychological changes that can’t be faked. Those changes can be tested for. There is no reason a society could not have mandatory testing for all its people upon adulthood.

So knowing the above what if a society decided to treat them as second class citizens? Tattoo them, forbid them from running for office or anywhere that lives would depend on them.
There is no real data on what would happen to our society at large. From what little data we have a large percentage of CEO’s and politicians are either sociopaths or narcissists (sociopaths at least tend to gravatate to positions of power and money, such as being a surgeon). While we have no way of knowing for sure what would happen, I think the changes would be both profound and subtle.
Both groups are fond of the big lie. The idea that if a lie is big enough and absurd enough it will be believed. This often works because we assume everyone’s brain works like ours does. We assume people we are talking to or who are talking to us have compassion as we do.

Doing this would of course create an underclass. What I find interesting is how this would be an underclass that would have little to do with money or with hereditary. You would be putting people there because of who they are and not what they are.

The outcome of this could range on one extreme from being disabled. Little socal stigma, they would just be unable to do certain jobs. The other end of the spectrum they would be untouchables, shunned by all and trusted by none.

The Justice system

One subject that comes up only occasionally in sci-fi is how future societies punish criminals.

In modern western societies almost all punishment come in one of two forms, either prison time or money.

While people may sometimes speak of rehabilitation little is done on that front today.

Prisons are very expensive to maintain, not only in terms of money but in terms of manpower. They rely on a large tax base and on having a good amount of manpower.

While fee’s have the benefit of not costing tax money, they do have the disadvantage of being asymmetrical. What is a small fee to one person is a large one to someone else. Its very hard to have a set fee work on both a wealthy businessman and someone who makes minimum wage.

When you are making a future society think about how they will punish those who wronged them. Maybe more importantly, consider what they want more; punishment, recompense or rehabilitation. You also have to consider how important productively is. If a people need workers badly enough, they might not be willing to take them out of the workforce so any punishment can’t remove them from the workforce.

Even if punishment stays the focus, there are many other ways we could go about it. Humiliation was common at one point, as was mutilation.

One idea I could see taking hold is having a chance at death be the punishment for every crime. If you killed someone, you have a 1/3 chance of drawing a death penalty. If you messed up someones lawn you have a 1/500, ect.

Its possible that punishment will not be the focus of the justice system at all, it will instead be recompense. If you kill someone you have to make up for it.

Maybe you have to support his family. If he was donating to a charity you have to as well. You have to in every way possible make up for him not being alive anymore. Maybe even to the point of organ donation.

Under this system the rich might be able to kill poor people without much problem. It would just mean a day in court after which you tell your accountant to pay them and you never think about it again. Legally nothing could be done against you.

I would probably make faking injuries and framing people much more common. If you make it look like someone made you unable to work they would have to pay for lost wages. Maybe a lot of lost wages.

Such a system would be contingent on the ability to enforce. How hard would it be to run away? If we are talking about a cashless future where everything is done electronically and its all tied to your ID then it might be very hard.

Rehabilitation is the third option, a more compassionate society then ours might not want revenge or even for the offenders to fix the problems they caused but for the offenders to become better people. They might not want a murderer to be punished. Rather they may want the murderer to know why what he did was wrong and to never do it again.

While it may be tempting to go in a Star Trek style direction with this I think it would be more interesting to go the other way. What if you had brainwashing technology and used it when someone committed a capital crime. The murderer would be forced to believe that murder was wrong.

What effect would that have? What would it be like to be an unrepentant murderer who was forced to feel that what he did was wrong?

Review: Freefall

Freefall by Felix R. Savage

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Freefall was definitely hard science fiction. It also had elements of a spy thriller and a Project Manhattan style race. That may make it sound scattershot but its not.

Spoilers ahead, you have been warned (I will keep them light however)

Just after the shuttle program is shut down we detect an alien ship in orbit of one of the moons of Jupiter. The book is about our reaction to this. The leaders of the world decide they have to send a ship there and at minimum make sure it’s no threat (the ship looks like its dead in space) and at best grab everything not nailed down.
In pursuit of this, the entire worlds supply of rockets are used over the course of two years to put our new ship and its supplies into orbit. To make the ship itself requires a massive level of resources from the five richest nations on earth. Many authors would underestimate the scope of the resources needed, but Felix R. Savage did not.
Beyond the money spent, the government (at least the US) was willing to lie, steal and kill to get the technologies needed to make the ship work.

One of my pet peeves is when books show everyone as selfish, or evil with little redeeming characteristics. While freefall does not go that far, and many of the characters exist in a shade of gray, it does veer in that direction. The main character, Jack Kildare, is a main part of the reason this does not became too much of an issue. He is a good man who really only wants to just be an astronaut.

The scope of the book, in concept and scope truly made it a pleasure to read and I am looking forward to reading the sequels.

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