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Category Archives: Setting

Just to prove I’m a biology geek as well as a physics geek

Big S.I.S. or Secondary Immune System is considered to be one of the great medical discoveries alongside germ theory and penicillin and often lauded as a concrete step towards a panacea. However, I’m going to use it to illustrate the biological/technological divide.

For anyone that doesn’t know how the human immune system works, invading pathogens have surface antigens (specific protein chains) that the anti-bodies in your immune system attach to and so flag the pathogen for destruction by the white blood cells. Now this functions fine in almost all cases, considering you will come into contact with billions of bacteria on a daily basis and only get sick every few months, but there is always room for improvement. Especially against pathogens that could outfox the normal immune system like HIV and malaria.

At the end of the 22nd century both Altair and Earth were experimenting with an artificial antibody producer. These would have a much lower threshold than the human response, and due to a more specialised nature, they would be able to produce antibodies faster. Both research teams worked in more or less isolation and reached quite different solutions.

The Earth team created a template for a micro-robot that took up residence in the liver. This would, on a prompt from an external source, pump out large amounts of antibodies and was controlled by a larger implant beneath the hypothalamus[1]. The treatment was very effective, could be reprogrammed to keep up with mutating pathogens and was mother of all expensive to produce. In fact the system was so expensive[2] and required constant upkeep to function that it took fifty years for half the population of Earth to posses the device and even then most health systems only covered it for an additional surcharge.

Altair took a very different tack. They stripped down the human antibody producing cells (plasma B cells) and got them to self replicate, then they allowed for a certain man made viral strain to be taken up by the cells and introduced a vicious evolutionary system. Each cell would produce a huge amount of antibody, but it would also use the concentration of that antibody as a trigger for autolysis (cell suicide). This meant that there was a constant variation in the antibodies and those that were binding to pathogens wouldn’t increase in concentration enough to kill the producing cell, thus promoting the evolution of a more effective SIS based on the pathogens the host was regularly exposed.

While technically more complicated to set up the SIS in this instance had almost zero maintenance and was self replicating, not to mention that in many cases its evolution was faster than that of the pathogens. Its biological basis meant that production was very cheep and in the same time frame Altair had total saturation and was already working on coding the production of the SIS into the populations’ genes[3].

Now, this is quite a biased example. Biological technologies suck for building spaceships, for example. But I thought it would be interesting too show two very different ways of solving the same problem.

[1] Large being a relative term, it could still be injected.

[2] There are many laws in Vast Worlds against self replicating machines too small to be hit by a hammer, this kept the price of construction of anything below milli scale high for a very long time.

[3] Interestingly, this is a microcosm of why the Altairians did the best out of the End Time Wars. Technology needs constant maintenance, skilled labour and a solid understand of its workings. Altair’s biological techs, while very clever, are installed on the genetic level to the entire population and so, while centuries of knowledge were lost in both instances, on Altair those technologies kept working generations after the machines have crumbled into dust.

I hate writing aliens.

Okay, that’s not true. Aliens are fine as long as there are people to make comparisons but they are really hard to write in isolation.

The Ewts, who are currently giving me the most trouble, are a species that I have put a lot of thought into and I’m currently churning my way through writing a language for them. Their problem is Empathy. No not caring part, let me explain.

When crafting an alien race there are a few simple steps: 1) pick an animal to base their morphology on 2) Pick a trait that makes them different from humans 3) Repeat step 2 4) Extrapolate.

For the ewts this is: Newts, Undetermined Gender and Empathy. Here follows the extrapolation.

So for a start the ewt philosophy is very centred around water, to the point of river worship, not to mention a deep seated view that events are implacable unless countered with a good front crawl. Their surroundings are dangerous, but they bread quickly leading to a safety in numbers attitude and a deep seated idea that they have to fight for what they have, but against their environment as much as themselves.

The undetermined gender (ie, the same ewt may fulfil different gender roles at different times) wipes out a lot of the immediate prejudices and because of this ewts have a precedence to treat people as if they can achieve anything they wish too. Racial prejudice is just as popular as in humanity but ewts have never formed a caste system, or a monarchy as the idea that a man can be predestined by their birth has never sat well.

Finally, the most complicated concept is Empathy. Ewts, along with quite a few of the dominant hunters on their planet, can pick up on the minds of other creatures at a distance. In the Vast Worlds canon this is due to the same quantum resonance effect the Altairians use for telekinesis but the ewts use it purely to gather information with no actual effect on their target.

Like human language this ability expanded in use and complexity as the ewts formed the first tribes and they can pick out another ewts emotions’ at a hundred yards. It has never been a force for peace; it did originally evolve as a hunting sense so the ewts aren’t particularly distraught at feeling (paetan, in ewtan) someone suffering, though there is a tendency for ewts to want to solve that problem if the sufferer is resident, as there is some emotional spill over.

Now, this empathic sense and shared sub-conscious is very difficult to qualify. If I were being clever I’d find some way to integrate someone into it, or have a human stooge to explain it too, but I’m not, I have to write a short story where an alien encounters these ewts and goes about dealing with them more or less scientific way. Worse, for the bits where the story focuses on the ewts I have to drop six months of work on history and cultural motivation into a couple hundred words.

I’m beginning to see why Star Trek just had pointy ears.

The Rise and Fall of Altair

Altair was never more than a regional power. A mostly educated populous and the low grade discrimination over the planet’s biotech specialism led to quite an introverted culture, and by the End Time Wars both the ruling body and the people wanted little to do with the wider galactic community. Even in the war itself Altair had little to do with the end result, though was the site of one of the final battles.

The AI virus wiped out nearly every machine humanity had, along with the ability to make more and in some cases the ability to even fix them. Large scale failure of cybernetic implants rendered brain-dead the rich and powerful, and more importantly the skilled. Only those off the network at the time, or those without significant electronic outsourcing, survived as anything more than a shadow of their former selves but their story is for another time.

Altair had one of the lowest numbers of cybernetic implants due in most part to trade regulations and their own small electronics sector limiting access, not to mention they had their own biological substitute, the ex-brain[1]. When computers fell, Altair almost didn’t notice and a few weeks of disruption, while the electronic systems were shunted over to the biological or simplified, was the worst they had. Even their food production was unaffected, most of their farming being done by trained biological systems that continued functioning.

It is one of the huge advantages of a biological focus that its products are extremely hard to break. Okay, so they also tend to be hard to manufacture, and take years rather than ours to reach a useful stage, but when you break an axle on a mechanical tractor you have to call in a mechanic, on Altair you gave it two weeks bed rest and a special calcium feed for the rest of the month. Not only that, but even if the secrets of biotech’s design is lost, they have a tendency to be self propagating[2].

Because of this, while even Earth lost a couple hundred years of its development Altair was more or less unfazed, but that left it standing head and shoulders above the other planets who were struggling even to hold a government together, let alone feed the survivors of the war.

Within months Altair had become the biggest export of technology in all history and fleets of trading ships filled the skies between her and the core worlds. Refugees streamed onto the planet, so many that at the height of the troubles Altair closed its doors to prevent its own people starving.

As you can imagine during this time Altair became very rich, but also powerful. Therein lay the seeds of their downfall as Altair had never had power before. They always survived under the protection of another and had no martial history to speak off beyond a small, near ceremonial militia[3]. Thus, when power was handed to them they used it badly, investing in a secretive defence program Project Q.

This was to be their ace in the hole, the telekinetic population granted by this project would be supremely powerful as both a trained army and a militia, but they failed to see the flipside. As their power waned the rising Empire of Earth had to remove Altair as a threat[4] but the people of Altair could not be cowed. While Altair’s official military and fleet was paltry in comparison to the forces the Empire could muster, one on ten of their population could take on a fully trained man in close combat, one in a thousand could take on tanks and there were a few individuals that could destroy armies if they put their minds to it.

There was no attempt to occupy Altair. The nukes began to fall before the space battle had even finished, and it was only the efforts of over eleven thousand merchant vessels that any Altairians escaped at all and even then barely a tenth of the population escaped with their lives.

[1] Short for Exterior Brain (again, Altairians aren’t good with names) the ex-brain had been designed some fifty years prior and was extremely popular for those trying to get an IQ boost beyond passive genetic mods. Essentially a lump of unconnected neural matter the ex-brain would learn along side the original brain and allow for greater parallel processing and so quicker and more accurate thinking. Many foreigners disregard the ex-brain as inferior to computerised processing as it is not capable of the same speed or aclarty in its function but many, even outside of Altair, applaud its ability to mirror human thinking patterns as it does not introduce the overdependence of wholly logical processing required to use an electronic mind. The fact it can act as a back up form in case your cranium is blown out is just a plus.

Reproduction of the ex-brains were lost with the destruction of Altair though a few still exist and still have personality.

[2] Never plow during the mating season, you get some interesting fields out of it that’s all I’ll say.

[3] The Hawks just for reference.

[4] The Empire exists by promising protection for tribute. However, with only the Empire as a major power the only protection they can offer is protection from the Empire and so only their overwhelming firepower and technological superiority prevent a wide scale uprising. Altair as a nation powerful enough to resist them is not therefore compatible as a single power world can protect the worlds around it from the thinly spread forces of the Empire and so form its own power block and fight back. To ensure galactic peace therefore, Altair had to die.

While the End Time collapse was unexpected by the general population but many individuals, especially those of a more pragmatic attitude, saw the writing on the wall in the first few months. They realised that, not only their way of life was unsustainable, but their population was likewise far too high for everyone to survive and so the first Refuges were planned.

These ranged in size and complexity, from a two man farm in the depths of a forest, to the city state of the Centurian Elevator[1], but most ranged between a village size (100-500 people) to that of large towns (5000+) and were set up in isolated locations on the planet’s surface. What set the refuges apart was the complete redesign of society within them to be sufficient without the use of heavy automation, particularly in farming, and in other key areas such as transport the responsibility for necessities became focused on what could be achieved by the community. If no one could make toasters, you ate bread, was a popular mantra by these fledgling communities.

Most were under prepared for the sheer scale of the disaster. The founders may have been at least aware of the danger, but many that focused on ploughs rather than machine guns found their towns swamped and destroyed by the starving hordes descending from the metropolitan areas[2]. The more isolated, the more sealed, those built on an asteroid six light seconds away tended to survive much more often, and so some semblance of natural selection occurred as the local government imploded. The more isolationist tended to survive, and so were successful and so ruled over the remaining states.

In some places the local government did weather the turmoil, but in the outer reaches especially it collapsed, leaving those with sustainable supplies of food and guns as the absolute rulers and more than a few tyrannical regimes sprang up. Most collapsed for a variety of reason, continued contact with a range of stellar states with a plethora of superior technologies, internal forces, or in some cases the planetary environment collapsing. Of course, contact with the Empire was the final nail in the coffin for these cultures as they were amalgamated into the main body, though many of the smaller settlements kept a sense of autonomy due to sheer insignificance.

As a point of interest orbital Refuges were very popular in the inner systems where there wasn’t enough wilderness to hide a good sized settlement. Many of these were much smaller than their land locked counterparts[3] but net some planets reached over ten million people living in a band of orbital habitats and standard of living tended to be much higher due to the ease of trade.

[1] It was rather a special case. The majority of the planet’s surface had been rendered uninhabitable during the End Time Wars and so it was the only state sponsored project at this time.

[2] Many of the surviving Refuges have strong roots in the local military forces, who integrated into the enclaves when they realised that the situation was hopeless, to ensure their men’s survival. The mutual contract has persisted into the modern age and more than a few peasant and warrior caste cultures have sprung up.

[3] Though it was at this time where humanity quadrupled the number of colonised stellar bodies as the planets passed over as unviable for colonisation before suddenly because cheep and isolated real estate.