The universe is not only strange but stranger than we can imagine

Project Maldon

Breaking Point

Epigraph, Chapter Three, Project Maldon

Economics says the more of something there is, the cheaper it is. Thus air (until recently) was free, while diamonds commanded a high price. The same principle applies to human life. With twelve billion people swarming the globe, life is cheaper than it used to be. How much cheaper we are still discovering

Breaking Point, A collection of essays on Post Millennial topics. Henrikus Grobius Jr.

The AI known as “Helen”

Epigraph, Chapter Two, Project Maldon

Of all the enigmas of the enigmatic Skellig Michael Institute, by far the most mysterious is the artificial intelligence being known simply as Helen. By the Turing test, she is definitely intelligent — her conversation is indistinguishable from that of a shrewd well-educated person. What is more remarkable she appears to have a well-defined character — sardonic, playful, sometimes a trifle eerie. Her personality is constantly and deliberately refined through a sophisticated program of human interaction.  Does she have desires? Is she ever lonely? Needless to say, the scientists cannot answer with any authority, and Helen avoids all questions on the subject. There is little precedent for dealing with AIs, and one is tempted to ask what private agenda this awesome entity contemplates, as it circles the globe in high orbit, looking down on our teeming, fragile planet.

Puzzles of the PM: Henrikus Grobius Jr.

Wolfe’s world — overview

(Dr. Edward Wolfe, Fellow Level II of the Skellig Michael Institute, expert in SocioCybernetics*, is the protagonist of Project Maldon and Hunger Star. Here is a quick look at his world.)

It’s closer to the end of the 21st Century than the beginning. Trends that were evident in the early decades have  accelerated– the fragmentation of nations, the rise of extremist religions, massive social dislocation as robots and AI entities take over more and more jobs. The divide between rich and poor continues to grow, and even to accelerate.

Who’s in charge here?
Artificial Intelligence entities (AIs) have been developed, and four of the most advanced ( Big Red, Lao Tze, Solomon and Helen) are generally given most of the credit for keeping humanity from total disaster, by expert juggling of scarce resources, brokering of  fragile agreements between nuclear-armed power blocks and, it is whispered, a clandestine policy of assassination targeting those judged to be destabilizing influences. If anyone — or anything — is truly running the show, it may be these AIs.

Long life — for those who prosper
Medical sciences are thriving. For those who can afford the treatments, life can be prolonged many years, perhaps a century or more. No-one knows except the Elders (as they have been dubbed) — and they are not telling. The wealthy can also afford the genetic engineering needed to breed “super children,” offspring endowed with intelligence, athletic skills and good health. Auto-immune diseases such as arthritis can be arrested and reversed with tailor-made medicines. Experiments with enhancing and storing the elusive thing called “consciousness” on machines are underway. Chip implants, prosthetic limbs and sense organs have given those who can afford them near superhuman powers of recall and perception. In every way, the borders that used to define what it is to be human are becoming blurred.

The high frontier is opening, but...
New materials and techniques have made space travel and colonization feasible. Humans have gained a real if precarious foothold in space, with outposts on Mars, a nascent asteroid mining industry, and a scatter of permanent, near self-supporting colonies on the Moon.  Several large orbital habitats serve as jumping-off points for outward bound missions — and as lifeboats, should conditions Downwell** spiral out of control. But space travel is still expensive, fatal accidents common and enabling technology in the early stages of its evolution. The promise of outward expansion is there, but it will take time to fulfill. The question is, does humanity have time?

The Die Back lurks
Despite progress in some areas, there is a growing sense of crisis. At the heart of the crisis is the world’s runaway overpopulation. Everyone agrees there are far more people than the tormented planet can sustain– but no-one agrees what to do about it. How to bring the population down to sustainable levels? Who decides who should not reproduce — and maybe who should die? With famine, disease and violence stalking the favelas and suburbs, with the wretched of the Earth washing up at the locked gates of walled communities, with conflicts flaring on every continent, the Die Back (as it has come to be known) seems all but inevitable.

When and how The Die Back starts is a matter for earnest debate and hysterical pronouncements. But few doubt that it is coming. Soon.

 

*SocioCybernetics:  the science (some say art) of computer-assisted social engineering. The Skellig Michael Institute is universally acknowledged as the leader in SoCy, a discipline sometimes described as the most effective way ever invented of meddling in other people’s affairs.

**Downwell: abbreviation of “down the gravity well.” A somewhat derisive term used by spacers for Earth.

 

Monks in the sky: The Skellig Michael Institute

Planet earth with rising sun

Epigraph, Chapter One, Project Maldon

The Skellig Michael Institute was founded by an eccentric and perhaps even repentant software billionaire. Fearing the collapse of Western civilization, he founded an Institute to shore up the tottering institutions. The Institute’s home was to be “in the most remote locale available” with campuses in various parts of the globe. Ultimately headquartered in a high-orbit space facility, the Institute, self-governing, elitist, devoted to defining and preserving “civilization,” rapidly achieved great prestige. Part university, part corporation, part private club and part monastery, the Skellig Michael has survived (except in Pakistan) and even flourished in the arid soil of the Post Millennium world.

Monks in the sky: The Skellig Michael Institute — a brief history.

The Battle of Maldon: a parable for our time?

Sutton_Hoo_helmet_reconstructedWhy call a SF novel “Project Maldon?” Because the sociocybernetics project which is the focus of the book is a last ditch attempt to avert disaster — a disaster brought on by the ineptitude of society’s leaders. That comparable disasters have been brought on by incompetent or arrogant leaders at various times in “our dark and lamentable history ” is illustrated by the Battle of Maldon.

 

Then the Earl, in his overweening pride

Granted ground too much to the hateful enemy

 

The Battle of Maldon was fought in 991, during the reign of Aethelred the Unready, between the English and an invading Viking Army which arrived in almost 100 ships.

The result was a stunning and unnecessary defeat for the English, one which cost the lives of the English Earl Bryhtnoth and his closest companions — and left the countryside defenceless.  The battle had little or no strategic significance. It is remembered for the tragic ineptitude of the English leader and for the heroism of the members of his bodyguard,  (who paid with their lives for his incompetence. ) The Battle of Maldon, one of the first English poems, records and immortalizes the event.

The Vikings shouldn’t have had a chance. They had been raiding  the English coast all summer, striking at coastal villages, looting and vanishing.  In late summer of 991 they camped on Northey Island, near the Blackwater River in southern England.  The island was connected to the mainland by an eight-foot wide causeway, visible only at low tide. The English deployed at the far end of the causeway and waited.To attack, the Vikings had to advance across the narrow finger of land in single file, a military impossbility. Had the English held their position, the Vikings would have had no choice but to sail away.

However the English leader was impatient to fight a decisive battle. In his “arrogant pride” he invited the Viking army to cross over to the mainland unopposed, form up on the shore and engage his own troops. The Vikings were quick to take advantage of Bryhtnoth’s misplaced sense of fair play. The result was a disaster for the English.

After some indecisive fighting, the English earl was wounded. Falling to the ground he drew his sword, but the Vikings rushed in upon him and one struck a blow that severed the tendons of the old earl’s arm. Moments later, the Vikings beat down his personal bodyguard and killed the earl as he lay.

The tide of battle now began to turn decisively against the English. Seeing their leader dead on the field, some of the English began to slink away. Then a spectacular and calamitous act of cowardice: one of the dead earl’s closest companions, thinking the battle lost, mounted the earl’s own horse and road off. Many of the remaining English soldiers, believing the earl himself was fleeing, left the battlefield to save their own lives.

To leave the body of their leader on the battlefield to leave his death unavenged, was unthinkable for the earl’s closest associates, his “Hearth and Shoulder Companions” or personal guard.  Their only honorable options were to avenge Bryhtnoth by defeating the invaders or die trying. In the event, die is exactly what they did.

Maldon Brythnoth_statueAs defender after defender  fell beneath the Viking onslaught, it became clear the battle was hopeless. With the end near, one of the Earl’s oldest companions, a white haired old warrior named Bryhtwold, raising his sword and shaking his shield at the enemy, shouted his defiance. His words are perhaps the ultimate expression of the unconquerable human spirit — the spirit that has moved brave people everywhere and in every age to keep fighting in the face of impossible odds:

 

“Heart shall be stronger,

Keener the will

Mood the more

As our might lessens”

To be braver, more resolute, in the face of onrushing barbarism, even as our strength fails: the concept is perhaps as valid in the early years of the second Millennium as it was nine years before the first.

Nor is the portrait of a leader who “in his heart’s arrogance grants ground too much to the hateful enemy” entirely without resonance more than one thousand years after night fell over the hacked and bloody victims of the Battle of Maldon.

Categories