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What Makes Us Human

 
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Cord Hurn
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PostPosted: Tue Dec 24, 2013 7:47 pm    Post subject: What Makes Us Human Reply with quote

"What Makes Us Human" is the sole science fiction story in Reave the Just and Other Tales; the other seven stories being fantasy yarns. Concerning this story, Stephen R. Donaldson writes in the RtJ Introduction that "...my ego impaired my judgment: Fred Saberhagen had asked me to contribute to a 'shared-world' Berserker novel he had in mind, and I wanted to prove that I belonged in the company of other writers he'd approached--among them Roger Zelazny, Poul Anderson, Ed Bryant, and Connie Willis."

Well, I don't know about SRD's ego being the culprit, but something is impaired about a story involving a spaceship full of Earth's descendents being defended by a shield called c-vector that functions "at right angles to the speed of light". Such an impairment might have been brought on by smoking too much cannabis while trying to brainstorm for story ideas; guess we'll never know. (At least, that's what it would take for me to come up with such an idea; I have no idea how SRD arrived at it.)

"What Makes Us Human" doesn't strike me as a bad story (I'm not inclined to think anything Donaldson writes is bad, but not everything has appealed to me), as Donaldson's descriptive powers are as evident here as anywhere. But, it's a tale that manages to mix charm with goofiness. The charm is in the likeability of our heroine Temple and in the determined optimism of the people of planet Aster. The goofiness is in the idea of a c-vector shield and in there being pages of backstory building up to a very simple plot of a stalemate with a robot spaceship being overcome by human trickery.

Before I get to discussing Temple and her partner (in terms of being co-worker and lover) Gracias, I'll go over the backstory leading up to the plot.

Sometime in the future, a crisis on planet Earth prompts authorities to send out ships through the galaxy to ensure the continuation of the human race, and the nature of this crisis becomes forgotten over time. Most of the people on these ships are in a cold-based suspended animation, except for the "nicians" (mechanics/engineers) and the "puters" (programmers) who live out their lives for generations keeping the ships safe (hmmm... I sense a potential problem of eventual inbreeding some years down the road, but maybe the nicians and puters get to "unfreeze" people they desire as prospective mates).

Anyway, one of these ships, called Aster, crash-lands on a slightly hotter and heavier planet (compared to Earth) which the new human inhabitants named after their defunct spaceship. The crash on this mainly jungle planet destroyed a lot of technology, and not all the sleeping people who were awakened were of much use in re-establishing civilization among the people.
Quote:
As for the sleepers: according to legend, a full ten percent had been politicians. And another twenty percent had been people the politicians deemed essential--secretaries, press officers, security guards, even cosmeticians. That left barely six hundred individuals who were accustomed to living in some sort of reality.

Heh-heh. Digs like this are part of this story's charm for me, too.

So, people from Earth had to learn how to survive in primitive conditions all over again, living to seek and create food and shelter.
Quote:
Next they struggled. After all, what good did it do them to have a world if they couldn't fight over it?

Two thousand years later, the spherical spaceship Aster's Hope was built to go back and rediscover Earth (a thousand light years away) by following radio transmissions back to their source (presumably Earth).

But Asterin people wanted Aster's Hope to have a protective shield.
Quote:
So she wasn't built until a poorly paid instructor at an obscure university suddenly managed to make sense out of a field of research that people had been laughing at for years: c-vector.
For people who hadn't done their homework in theoretical mathematics or abstract physics, c-vector was defined as at right angles to the speed of light. Which made no sense to anyone--but that didn't stop the Asterins from having fun with it. Before long, they discovered that they could build a generator to project a c-vector field.
If that field were projected around an object, it formed an impenetrable shield--a screen against which bullets and laser cannon and hydrogen torpedoes had no effect.


The spaceship Aster's Hope is launched with 390 people (diplomats, meditechs, linguists, theoretical biologists, physicists, scholars, librarians) in chilled suspended animation, and with nician Temple and puter Gracias running the ship, one of twenty-five nician/puter pair-ups (the other twenty-four pairs staying in suspended animation until their respective shifts come up).

The plot begins with them running within the ship in a lighthearted chase, as Temple and Gracias are trying to outwit each other as a prelude to lovemaking. They are interrupted in this by an alarm indicating that a large object is heading their ship's way, decelerating from above the speed of light.
Quote:
From above the speed of light. Even though the best Asterin scientists had always said that was impossible. Oh well, she [Temple] muttered to herself. One more law of nature down the tubes. Easy come, easy go.


This object is a ship that scans Aster's Hope and then tries to break into the computer system. Gracias keeps it out with a chain of evolving encryption codes. Temple and Gracias are concerned that Aster is in danger, as they are only about .4 light-years away from it, and an ion trail from the ship to the planet makes it easy for the hostile ship to locate. Temple suggests sending a warning message to Aster, but the alien ship jams it. This ship and Aster's Hope maneuver around each other, firing at each other. Although the alien ship has an inferior shield, Aster's Hope's weapons can't do it any real damage. The alien ship, entirely mechanical with no living beings aboard, steadily does damage by firing torpedoes at the exact same spot through the c-vector shield. And a mechanical voice then tells Temple and Gracias: " Surrender, badlife. You will be destroyed." It's obviously bent on destroying any "inferior" biologically-based intelligence (like Nomad in the original Star Trek series episode "The Changeling") But it can't read the life-forms of the people in the sleeping tubes through the c-vector shield.

This gives Temple an idea, which I won't spoil by explaining in detail, here. Suffice to say it involves her heading alone in a space suit towards the robot ship with a c-vector generator under pretense of surrendering.

Quote:
For an instant, her own smallness almost overwhelmed her. No Asterin had been where she was now: outside her ship half a light-year from home. All of her training had been in comfortable orbit around Aster, the planet acting as balance to the immensity of space. And there had been light! Here there were only the gleams and glitters emitted by Aster's Hope's cameras and scanners--and the barely discernible bulk of the alien, its squat lines only slightly less dark than the black heavens.

But she knew that if she let herself think that way she would go mad. Gritting her teeth, she focused her attention--and her thrusters--toward the enemy.


For sure, being alone with all that dark nothingness would be frightening and potentially destabilizing. Sometimes I wonder how astronauts can handle space walks, even with all that training.

This doesn't bother machines, of course, but machines don't have the advantages of inspiration and unpredictability born of human desperation, either. That determines the outcome, here.

Maybe humans will live in INFINITE happiness one day, even with all our unpredictable quirks, probably on the same day we learn to function at tangents of right angles to the speed of light--whatever that means. I'll put the pipe down, now.
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PostPosted: Sat Feb 06, 2016 9:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

In this thread's original post, I realize that I was somewhat of a smart-aleck in the way I was poking fun of the concept of a c-vector shield working "at right angles to the speed of light". Nevertheless, this story has something going for it that I admire, though I couldn't identify what it was on that previous re-read.

Quote:
Gulping air, she looked at Gracias. She felt wild and didn't know what to do about it. His eyes were dull, low-lidded: he might've been going to sleep. Sick with fear, she panted at him, "Do something. You're the ship's puter. You're supposed to take care of her. You're supposed to have ideas. They can't do this to my ship!"

Slowly--too slowly--he turned toward her. His neck hardly seemed strong enough to hold his head up. "Do what? Shield's all we've got. Now it isn't any good. That"--he grimaced--"that thing has everything. Nothing we can do."

Furiously, she ripped off her restraints, heaved out of her seat so that she could go to him and shake him. "There has to be something we can do!" she shouted into his face. "We're human! That thing's nothing but a pile of microchips and demented programming. We're more than it is! Don't surrender! Think!"

For a moment, he stared at her. Then he let out an empty laugh. "What good's being human? Doesn't help. Only intelligence and power count. Those machines have intelligence. Maybe more than we do. More advanced than we are. And a lot more powerful." Dully, he repeated, "Nothing we can do."

In response, she wanted to rage at him, We can refuse to give up! We can keep fighting! We're not beaten as long as we're stubborn enough to keep fighting! But as soon as she thought about that she knew she was wrong. There was nothing in life as stubborn as a machine doing what it was told.

"Intelligence and power aren't all that count," she protested, trying urgently to find what she wanted, something she could believe in, something that would pull Gracious out of his defeat. "What about emotion? That ship doesn't care about anything. What about love?"

When she said that, his expression crumpled. Roughly, he put his hands over his face. His shoulders knotted as he struggled with himself.

"Well, then," she went on, too desperate to hold back, "we can use the self-destruct. Kill Aster's Hope"--the bare idea choked her, but she forced it out--"to keep them from finding out how the shield generator works. Altruism. That's something they don't have."

Abruptly, he wrenched his hands down from his face, pulled them into fists, pounded them on the arms of his seat. "Stop it," he whispered. "Stop it. Machines are altruistic. Don't care about themselves at all. Only thing they can't do is feel bad when what they want is taken away. Any second now, they're going to start firing again. We're dead, and there's nothing we can do about it, nothing. Stop breaking my heart."

His anger and rejection should have hurt her. But he was awake and alive, and his eyes were on fire in the way she loved. Suddenly, she wasn't alone: he'd come back from his dull horror. "Gracias," she said softly. "Gracias." Possibilities were moving in the back of her brain, ideas full of terror and hope, ideas she was afraid to say out loud. "We can wake everybody up. See if anybody else can think of anything. Put it to a vote. Let the mission make its own decisions.

"Or we can--"

What she was thinking scared her out of her mind, but she told him what it was anyway. Then she let him yell at her until he couldn't think of any more arguments against it.

After all, they had to save Aster.


Much like other SRD protagonists, Temple keeps fighting against despair by continuing to insist to herself that a solution exists. And by staying in this frame of mind, she eventually finds a solution. You might say she defeats the internal enemy before she defeats the external enemy. That's something I do like about this story; it's a theme I've grown comfortable with in readings works by Stephen R. Donaldson.
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 31, 2016 5:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I've seen the trailer for the film "Passengers" and I wonder if this Donaldson story had any influence on it.
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PostPosted: Sat Dec 31, 2016 5:54 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Interesting, I'll have to check it out. Not one of my favourite stories, I must say. In fact, I usually just read TKS when I open RTJ.

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2017 4:53 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Domne wrote:
I've seen the trailer for the film "Passengers" and I wonder if this Donaldson story had any influence on it.


I saw the movie Passengers earlier today, and I've read SRD's "What Makes Us Human" short story at least three times, so I'm willing to make the attempt to compare the two.

THE SIMILARITIES:
Two people, a woman and a man, are the only conscious people on an interstellar ship that still has many years to go before it reaches its planetary destination, and it's a ship filled with many specialists that remain in suspended animation.

The two main characters in both the SRD short story and in this movie must deal with issues that arise from being human.

There is some romance in the plot between the two main characters.

The movie has many moments of scenic beauty, and the short story has Donaldson's descriptive beauty peppered throughout it.

The Passengers writer Jon Spaihts created a rather mediocre script for a Hollywood movie, and "What Makes Us Human" is a rather mediocre effort for a writer of SRD's considerable talent.

But, I think that's where the similarities end.

THE DIFFERENCES (some of them, anyway):
Temple and Gracious in the story are awake to run the ship Aster's Hope by intended design, as they are the respectively the "nician" and "puter" required to keep the ship maintained and on course. Temple and Gracious are descendants of people who left Earth many centuries ago to settle on the planet Aster, and now they are part of a voyage intended to return to Earth to make contact with whoever may be left on Earth after about two millennia. Temple & Gracias are the first in a long chain of pairs of techs that will be conscious to tend the ship in its decades-long interstellar voyage.

On the other hand, the ship Avalon in the movie isn't supposed to need anybody awake to run it, and this character Jim is awakened when his cryogenic sleeping bed malfunctions after an asteroid hits the ship. After being alone on the ship for a year (except for holograms and a robot bartender), engineer Jim can't take lacking human companionship any longer, and so makes the morally dubious decision to awaken writer Aurora (her name an obvious "Sleeping Beauty" reference) for her companionship, even though this will condemn her to living out her life on the ship well before the ship reaches its planetary destination of Homestead II.

Temple and Gracias have an obvious conflict as to the way to proceed in dealing with a threat to their ship, but have no conflict in their relationship with each other; they've completely accepted each other's company as work partners and love mates. There's a lot of conflict in the movie's second act when Aurora realizes Jim has destroyed her dream of living in a new world and writing about it by waking her up from cryogenic sleep, and she beats on him and is almost ready to kill him for what he's done.

There is a problem with the cryogenic sleeping beds in the movie in that once they are opened, they are no longer functional. This is not the case at all in the SRD story, and the protagonists' ability to reactivate a cryogenic sleeping bed at need is part of the story's resolution.

The question of human nature in the SRD story is the ability of the human spirit to triumph over mechanical intelligence by being devious, resourceful, and unpredictable. The question of human nature in this Passengers movie concerns motives of selfishness and unselfishness, and in being resigned to accept not living to reach your originally intended destination in favor of being with someone who's become the love of your life.

In the SRD story, the threat comes from an mechanical ship with military and navigable superiority that is determined to destroy Aster's Hope because it contains biological life. In this movie Passengers, the threat comes from a fusion reactor (damaged by the same asteroid that caused Jim's sleeping bed to open) malfunctioning to the point that it will blow up the Avalon ship.

There's scientific improbabilities in both the Passengers movie and the SRD short story, but those improbabilities are different in nature. With the movie, it's things like the ship being lit up and amenities functioning when no one is supposed to be awake and a faulty fusion generator blowing up instead of just shutting down. With the short story, it's the craziness of Aster's Hope being protected by the power of a "c-vector shield" that functions "at right angles to the speed of light" (and I've already mocked this idea in this thread's original post, so I don't want to get started on that again, LOL).

Differences in the endings are apparent, as well. Spoiler:
In the short story, the ship gets turned around to head back to its launching point of Aster because it's obvious to the protagonists that the voyage should be started all over again once the ability to travel by light speed is gained, and it's known by story's end that light speed travel is possible because of encountering an enemy ship with just such capability. In this movie, the ship goes on to its destination--no aborting whatsoever of mission--with the crew finally waking up to see the redecoration of the ship by the long-dead protagonists who left a greeting behind for the shipmates that survived them.


Considering that there have been quite a number of stories about suspended animation in the science fiction genre, I will venture to say that screenwriter Jon Spaihts was not influenced by Stephen R. Donaldson's short story at all. I doubt Spaihts even read "What Makes Us Human", but who knows? Certainly there's not enough similarity for SRD to mount a successful lawsuit, is my best guess.
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PostPosted: Sat Mar 04, 2017 8:15 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

One more comparison I wish to make: I consider the short story "What Makes Us Human" to be superior to the screenplay of Passengers, because it has some unexpected twists near its end, whereas the final third of the Passengers movie is pretty much predictable as Hollywood scripts go.
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PostPosted: Sat Aug 26, 2017 5:56 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Nice overview Cord! I definitely want to check this out
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Cord Hurn
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PostPosted: Sat Aug 26, 2017 7:10 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Skyweir wrote:
Nice overview Cord! I definitely want to check this out


Thank you so much, Skyweir! May you enjoy! (Despite some of my complaints about the movie Passengers, I have to admit it is a rather good-looking film! I probably wouldn't have seen it if it weren't for Domne's above inquiry.)
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