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They're Made out of Meat (terrybisson.com)
558 points by ColinWright on Aug 8, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 170 comments

This reminds me of a proposition put forth once (I think on tumblr of all places) that while humans are normally considered a "baseline" species in sci-fi, what would a sci-fi universe look like where humans were the superbeings?

There were dozens of replies along the lines of:

"I heard humans can survive losing a limb! Or even multiple limbs!"

"Their strength and tolerance for gravity far exceeds our own!"

"When one of their organs fails they can just swap it out with another compatible human that's died recently!"

It's pretty funny to imagine, and it's a perspective not often seen.

One of my favorite SF stories flips this premise: What if human beings were the wise, moral, responsible galactic elders? And we discovered low-tech aliens who observed:

- "Humans have such good self-control! They can resist cannibalism and murder so easily!" - "Humans live for more than two years!" - "Humans have time to learn more than a thousand words!" - "But when you get right down to it, humans are remarkably dumb and unmotivated, compared to us."

…and most importantly:

- "Hey, can we get some life extension technology? If we lived longer, we could totally have an engineering degree by age 6."

Vernor Vinge, "Original Sin." http://www.amazon.com/Collected-Stories-Vernor-Vinge/dp/0312...

> One of my favorite SF stories flips this premise: What if human beings were the wise, moral, responsible galactic elders? And we discovered low-tech aliens who observed:


The thought's occurred to me that perhaps we are the ancient Galactic intelligence.

There’s mounting evidence that our primitive ancestors would hunt large prey simply by following it at a walking pace, without sleep or rest, until it died of exhaustion; it’s called pursuit predation. Basically, we’re the Terminator.

Isn't that how the bushman in The Gods must be Crazy hunted his prey?

That's how humans hunt their prey everywhere (before we had tools.)

It's called cursorial hunting; wolves do it as well.


The important factor is "without sleep." And, in fairness, it's not entirely about "just walking."

Though it's counterintuitive, humans really do have more endurance than most large mammals.

Here's a wikipedia on the subject: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Persistence_hunting

I have not come across the "without sleep" thing before and the Wikipedia link does not seem to mention it. The Wikipedia persistence hunting is to jog after them under the midday sun until the prey overheats. That stuff you can see on youtube - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=826HMLoiE_o

Not so, actually - humans are one of the best at endurance walking out of all land animals. Trained humans regularly beat horses at long distance races - there's am annual one held in England, for example. I'd give links but I'm on mobile.

We're the only "animal" that collects water to consume later and doesn't need to stop to drink.

I think that's a major factor in endurance hunting - we can replenish hydration lost by sweat whereas others cannot.

From wikipedia:

> Although sweating is found in a wide variety of mammals, relatively few, such as humans and horses, produce large amounts of sweat in order to cool down.

We don't beat them out necessarily because we can replenish more, but because we are much more efficient at cooling ourselves. Obviously water and tools helped us, but imagine trying to compete in a 5k wearing a rubber suit--you wouldn't come close to competing with those humans you're up against.

Although ironically the locomotion is apparently not very efficient. I remember a good story where the efficiency of a human was compared to other animals and it was medicore, but on a bicycle it blew the animals out of the water, and it then said a computer was a bicycle for the mind.


usually humans beat horses on high temperatures and vice-versa (we being better at getting rid of heat).

I would like to know if these races allow for rehydration for both species, if humans run barefeet and if horses run with no cargo/horseshoes.

"They can survive in an atmosphere that's TWENTY PERCENT PURE OXYGEN. They actually need it to function!"

"If you breach their outer surface, an aqueous solution squirts out. On top of that, the weather on their homeworld regularly involves pure water falling from the sky. They live on the surface anyway."

"They progressed from tool use to apex species in only about 100000 generations. They went from writing to spaceflight in less than 500. They are about to create artificial intelligences based upon their own."

"They are covered and filled with some form of microscopic biological material that completely overwhelms any compatible surface in a matter of days. Attempts to eradicate it result in rapid adaptation."

"They have some form of mental superpower that allows them to defy logic and reason. All of their recent technology has resulted from generating seemingly random propositions and then gathering the evidence necessary to prove those false, rather than generating only propositions that conform to existing evidence."

There was a recent prompt[1] in /r/writingprompts similar to this recently.

[1] http://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/comments/2csvwk/wp_an...

I remember that. Here is the link by way of r/scifi : http://www.reddit.com/r/scifi/comments/1kl5ly/tumblr_for_onc...

In Old Man's War there are aliens that are about 1 inch high. Their technology is roughly equal to ours, but when their biggest aircraft are about a foot or two long, it's not an even match.

That reminds me of this advertisement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smwd8b0ycBg

Which in turn reminds me of a 2000AD Tharg's Future Shock story from around 1980'ish.

See http://www.reddit.com/r/hfy for more stories with a similar tack

An interesting piece by the YouTuber Tom Scott, based on the conceit that humans are unique in having evolved through competitive natural selection:


noblethrasher made a link to a reddit post where some examples of this are seen.

The Damned, by Alan Dean Foster, is a great series dedicated to this premise. At first, I thought you were quoting directly from one of the novels.

AE Van Vogt had a nice short story on those lines, "The Monster" . http://bookre.org/reader?file=292661

This would be any Earth-based story from the perspective of animals who interact with humans.

It might look like they're conscious but in fact it's only their actions that closely resemble those of conscious beings. The actions are obviously fully automatic because how could meat be conscious?

If you had a piece of meat than consumed English words and excreted correctly translated Chinese, could it be said that the meat actually understands Chinese?

How complex does a system of algorithms have to be to "understand" something? Hard question.

It's a reference to the 'Chinese Room' thought experiment.


It would be cool if HN had a 'Classics' section or something like it where stuff like this could be permanently placed because this and a handful of other stories get reposted every 1.5 years or so.

Fun read for sure and a good example of how a scifi story can be so simple but still have a lot to it.

I still remember a gem of a comment from last time, where someone miswrote the title as "They're made of meat" (without the "out") and a responder accused that person of completely missing the point of the story because "out" was critical to underdstanding.

I guess you're referring to this comment[0]. The "out" just seems like the cadence the author intended. I agree it sounds better and may lend a certain extra impact, but I don't know about "critical." Or am I missing something as well?

Sorry if this is pointless, I just looked it up because I was wondering if there was some deep metaphor or something I was missing.

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=3549886


The short-film adaptation of this was very well done. The David Lynch-influenced directing style worked well.

To me, it doesn't work at all. The whole point is that they are not-meat talking about meat. In the sketch, they look very meaty indeed, and their speech sounds like flapping meat, so that it does not work at all.

One of the things I really liked about this adaptation is how the dialog between the two doesn't actually match their lips properly. The "incorrect" voices and the "obviously a disguise" fez always suggested to me that the English we hear was just for the benefit of the audience and that their actual communication was different.

Of course, as with most art, opinions and interpretations will vary.

It looks like the sound is a little bit off, but it still looks like they're saying the same things we hear.

I simply assumed that they made themselves look like the locals. It doesn't mean that they are actually made of meat or see themselves as having any other resemblance to the humans.

To give a silly analogy, imagine we visit the world of the Smurfs together. We both paint ourselves blue to fit in, but then you tell me: "they're made out of cake frosting". I'm going to give you quite a strange look when you say that, regardless of the fact that I'm painted blue.

The core of the story is that the aliens can't accept the notion of a meat-based lifeform.

The idea that they might not just be wrong, but also in serious denial, is a cute twist.

Have you really never encountered an intelligent lifeform made entirely of meat who insists, often furiously, that an intelligent lifeform made entirely of meat is impossible? Because they're not exactly an endangered species around here.

Even as a vegan, this interpretation had never occurred to me but just blew my mind.

Thank you!

Not sure how appropriate or relevant this is, but both me and a friend read this and were reminded slightly of the stuff "written" by Matthew Holness' "Garth Marenghi" character. Sharing a couple of choice excerpts in case anyone is curious, but the real gold is in "Garth Marenghi's Darkplace" - a series set in 1980s hospital in Romford.

Dead Centre - http://www.garthmarenghi.com/books/deadcentre.htm - "This near-legendary collection of short stories includes 'The Streaming Face' (about a boy whose face is turned into a river by a magical elk because he spat on a gnome)"

Juggers - http://www.garthmarenghi.com/books/juggers.htm - "I wanted to write a book about the triumph of the female spirit over a gigantic lorry. Of course, looking back, I realise the truck actually represents AIDS.'"

Me it reminded of Stanisław Lem.

He often wrote stuff with an astronaut from the future, who meets other civilisations and often they are a little bit like the world now. So this guy goes there and is like "how crazy those aliens are, doing this and that" and the reader feels is like "well... he is totally right but that's how it's here in real life right now!!"

There was a marvelous episode of some "golden age" radio show that was giving "live updates" to a massive archeological find: the ancient island of Man Hat An was excavated, revealing wondrous finds... The Great Tomb of May Seas was opened, revealing all the treasures he needed for the afterlife such as huge rooms full of beds, clothing, entertainment, and even glass panels which magically showed events far away. Other such finds were noted, but it ended with clearing the great monument to their own doom, a stone-inscribed wall fearing the impending onslaught of the Post Men, whom "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds", whose ways younger documents noted "going Postal" being something to be feared.

Not sure which came first, but that sounds very much like "Motel of the Mysteries", a 1979 pseudo-future-archaeology book by David Macaulay.

An archaeologist in the year 4022 walking through the ancient land of "Usa" stumbles across an ancient U-shaped structure with dozens of individual or double-sized tombs. He uses these to piece together the burial customs of that long-lost civilization of Yanks and deduce the meanings and usage of items such as the ceremonial Sacred Urn - found in the Inner Chamber - and the Great Altar towards which the body on the Ceremonial Platform was clearly intended to face in the afterlife (holding the Sacred Communicator in its right hand).

If you like this you'd like the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun (Kim Il-sung Mausoleum). It has a very curious mixture of their possesions. From expensive gifts from foreign friends, to craft from schoolchildren, to everyday stuff. I think there is a photoshop CD on display for instance.

That reminds me of this anthropology essay about the Naciremas:


Similar case with Janusz Zajdel. Notably both have been writing during the communist rule. Some amusing stuff had been passed under the nose of censors.

I loved the TV series but had no idea there were books too. Thank you :)

The books are fictional sadly, sorry I should've made that clearer!

It's kind of you to say that, but in hindsight it's pretty obvious given the writing style of the show. I was just being epically stupid (I blame tiredness but really there isn't any excuse :p)

If it's any consolation I was gutted when I found that out. Hopefully I can find something else good by Matthew Holness, who knows he might even reprise his role as Garth

A hilarious show, all five episodes are on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=darkplace

It's quite a fun read but I don't understand why the author chose the word "meat". I mean, if for those aliens human biology is so weird and foreign, how could they have a concept of meat? Or meat flaps?

That seems to imply that they're familiar with non-sentient meat, but what would that be? And if those aliens are so different from us they probably don't have the same concept of food as we have, so it wouldn't make a lot of sense to single out "meat" at all. The story works better for me if I replace "meat" with, say, "carbon blob" or something like that. I still the humour still works out and it's a less culturally-loaded phrase.

I think the idea is that they have plenty of contact with meat-based living forms, but none of them are intelligent or sentient.

But those would blow air through their flaps, though, right?

It's a story about squick. The aliens aren't merely having trouble grasping the concept. They are revolted by the concept.

Indeed, as you've noticed, their revulsion appears to be the thing which prevents them from getting the picture. It's not as if they haven't seen meat. They've even seen intelligent creatures that are almost entirely meat. That's all part of the joke. If these aliens could get past their squick they'd be clever enough to understand squishy brains, but they can't.

The aliens don't speak English. I imagine the author chose the word meat in the translation into English for effect.

I think once the aliens got past the whole meat thing they'd find much common ground as fellow bigoted beings.

I saw your post this morning and it reminded me of the "To The Reader" opening of Nightfall by Isaac Asimov & Robert Silverberg. So now that I'm home I pulled it off my dead tree shelf for you :)

"Kalgash is an alien world and it is not our intention to have you think that it is identical to Earth, even though we depict its people as speaking a language that you can understand, and using terms that are familiar to you. Those words should be understood as mere equivalents of alien terms--that is, a conventional set of equivalents of the same sort that a writer of novels uses when he has foreign characters speaking with each other in their own language but nevertheless transcribes their words in the language of the reader. So when the people of Kalgash speak of 'miles,' or 'hands,' or 'cars,' or 'computers,' they mean their own units of distance, their own grasping-organs, their own ground-transportation devices, their own invormation-processing machines, etc. The computers used on Kalgash are not necessarily compatible with the ones used in New York or London or Stockholm, and the 'mile' that we use in this book is not necessarily the American unit of 5,280 feet. But it seemed simpler and more desirable to use these familiar terms in describing events on this wholly alien world than it would have been to invent a long series of wholly Kalgashian terms.

In other words, we could have told you that one of our characters paused to strap on his quonglishes before setting out on a walk of seven vorks along the main gleebish of his native znoob, and everything might have seemed ever so much more thoroughly alien. But it would also have been ever so much more difficult to make sense out of what we were saying, and that did not seem useful."

"Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." -Calvin and Hobbes


Maybe they should talk to the "psychopathically righteous" GCU Grey Area - which apparently takes quite an interest in meat beings.

SShhhhhhuddup man. I'm halfway through Excession!

If you like these kind of short stories, then you'd probably like this:


When you say "this kind" do you mean "free to read online and somehow ridiculously good"?

Because that should definitely be an actual genre.

The author of the egg, Andy Weir, recently wrote a full-length novel (The Martian).

The book started with Mr. Weir planning a series of mars missions, thinking about possible emergencies and what equipment should be sent to handle those contingencies. Eventually this turned into a story.

It's not really like the egg at all, but I enjoyed it a lot.

That is the most incredible short story I've read in a while. Thank you for sharing it!

[1] Readability link: https://www.readability.com/articles/waawsj9b


An excellent podcast/radio adaptation, along with an interview with Terry Bisson

Good thing I did ctrl+f before I posted this. This radio-drama interpretation is awesome.

It's a nice story, but not very logical

If meat thinking beings were so unheard of, you'd think they'd be all over us, trying to get to know what makes us tick, and why not, talking to us.

Like if we'd find a talking dog.

Maybe a more logical conclusion would be if they'd go: "Oh, it's just another meat civilisation. Just let them wander around in the dark like all the others, there's no chance they'll ever find anyone". Not as funny, but more logical :D

I think you have illustrated the point of the story by assuming these alien beings would react exactly how human's would. We don't know anything but human nature but it's not hard to imagine that non-human's or, rather, non-meat wouldn't have a non-human, non-meat nature.

by assuming these alien beings would react exactly how human's would

This is a tangent, but Peter Watts's brilliant novel Blindsight deals with this issue (among many others). Describing how would unfortunately ruin a key plot point.

He uploaded the whole novel to his website: http://www.rifters.com/real/Blindsight.htm but in my view it's more than worth getting in paper: http://www.amazon.com/Blindsight-Peter-Watts/dp/0765319640 .

I was going to comment on Blindsight.

It is a brilliant, brilliant piece of work. Certainly, the most 'alien' lifeform description I've ever seen. Even though he draws from his background a bit, so it still bears some superficial similarity to earth lifeforms.

that kind of makes sense

still, you'd expect any kind of intelligent being to be interested in accumulating more knowledge

I know I know, I'm projecting

the problem I had with the story is, exactly what type of existence do these aliens have? Why would they refer to other races as meat if they were not similar, biological lifeforms?

Meat is a term used to denote food, not a life form type.

I am pretty sure the aliens are not actually speaking in English, and if they are really non-human, does their communication even resemble our languages?

So having a problem with what an English term used in a story because it doesn't have quite the kind of meaning you think aliens would use seems rather inconsistent.

The idea I had, before the end of the story, was that the aliens were electronic (robots with AI).

Perhaps their far back robot ancestors made by an ancient "meat" civilization, but them having forgotten all of that after millions of years...

>Meat is a term used to denote food, not a life form type.

Actually meat just means meat. It's not just a word for a food, it's a specific kind of organic "substance".

> Actually meat just means meat. It's not just a word for a food, it's a specific kind of organic "substance".

Unless it refers to food, you'd usually see the word "flesh" instead of "meat". Or, depending on how specific you were being "muscle tissue", or "fatty tissue".

'Meat' in this sense is already a sci-fi trope.

The ship Grey Area, aka Meatfucker, from Ian Banks books has already been mentioned and the term meat is often used by the A.I. ships.

Meatspace is commonly used as an antonym to cyberspace and in Gibson's neuromancer trilogy, Molly used to be a meat-puppet and Case feels trapped in the meat.

You may not like this usage, but it has been well established for decades now.

Unless their language makes no distinction between flesh and meat. It's all a matter of semantics anyways, the story might as well have been "They're Made Out of Carbon" and remained technically correct, but would have lost much of its charm.

What if we found talking poo (kind of like Mr. Hanky) Wouldn't the entire idea that such a thing could be _sentient_ be more than we could handle. Re-Read the story again, and substitute "poo" for "meat" and maybe you'll get a feel for it.

After all - a talking dog is really just talking meat.

i think if we found any talking thing/being other than ourselves we'd be all over it. poo included

We know dolphins and whales speak and think. We are not "all over it". We could barely agree to a modest effort to reduce incidentally slaughtering some in our quest for other fish. We can not remotely agree to stop* directly slaughtering others.

If an alien race looked at us the way we look at dolphins, whales, or even primates -- we'd be damn lucky if they simply turned around and went home.

*edit: forgot "stop"

we can't actually talk to dolphins can we?

they're not trying to reach us and learn from us, and "swap ideas", as far as we know

and yet we still try to understand them and talk to them

if a dolphin was to one day utter: "hey guys, let's chat. let me tell you about my world, and you tell me about yours" - I think it would be all over the news, not glossed by like "pff.. stupid animal trying to think"

> "and yet we still try to understand them and talk to them"

For certain terrifyingly-narrow definitions of "we".

Compare the number of researchers puzzling over sea mammal communication to the number of fishermen intentionally and unintentionally slaughtering them.

It would be as if aliens arrived and realized that Humans were sentient but hadn't yet puzzled out how to truly communicate with us. So they abduct a few of us and task a handful of them with trying to work it out.

In the meantime, the rest of them discover they have a taste for corn. So they dredge half of Iowa, shrugging their shoulders at the incidental death and destruction of any number of farms, communities and small towns. Then they dump the "by-catch" and leave.

Not to mention the havoc that would wreck on our economy and food supply and how many might starve in addition to those who would die directly. Not to mention the long-term damage their unsustainable harvest methods would wreck and the implications that would have on our own ability to survive. Not to mention any research stations that may or may not be causing massive cases of dementia/die-off of any number of humans.

The next year, when even more alien harvest ships return to do it all again, how much comfort are you going to find in the notion that the handful of them -- however earnestly -- are trying to learn how to communicate with us?

Oddly enough these kinds of justifications are exactly what the aliens were doing in the story... just goes to show.

Reminds me of this project http://leafyseadragon.blogspot.ca

Well, keep in mind - in the story, sentient beings are fairly common - they run into them all the time (the Galaxy being pretty big, that's not surprising, particularly if you can move through C space (whatever that is)).

So, in this scenario, pretend we've just run into Sentient Race 36,000. But, this time, instead of being the usual flora and fauna and machine intelligence, it's just... poo.

I can see some jaded explorers being willing to give them a pass, and, well, leave the poo alone.

We can travel through C space. From context (and the fact that C often represents the speed of light), I assume C space is the 3d topology we observe where it is impossible to travel faster than C.

well, or the poo would be all over us....

We do find talking dogs. People stick the footage up on YouTube and we all sit around and have a hearty laugh then get on with out lives.

Other people claim to hear voices in the wind telling them to do stuff. We lock them up because we think they are insane and a threat to us.

Right... exactly the way Europeans approached the Africans.

sadly, that is more logical ..

That's not the point of the story. The point of the story is to question your own assumptions.

This story doesn't work for me, because the emphasis given to main word (which is the whole point I guess)

I imagine "Meat" to be a very human concept, strictly related to food, and to our nature as carnivores.

I can´t picture non carbon-based lifeforms talking about humans as "meat".

The whole concept of "meat" would be completely, well, alien to them.

Keep in mind they'd probably not be using English either.

That´s the point, we have to assume that "meat" is the English word that in their culture would be the best translation for the concept of "Biological, carbon-based lifeform".

They mention they know some other lifeforms "made of meat" where the brain is made of something different, so, they may be familiar with the concept of meat while considering intelligent meat an extremely odd idea.

One of my favorite stories ever. That, and The Last Question.

Ooh, thanks for the tip - that was really good. http://www.multivax.com/last_question.html

The Last Question was really nice. What a twist at the end.

Sci-Fi stories with a final twist at the end are plentiful, some of my favorites:

The Hunters - Walt Sheldon

Impostor - Philip K. Dick


All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein (http://faculty.uca.edu/rnovy/Heinlein--All%20you%20zombies.h...)

Indeed. The Last Question is a genuine classic. Asimov said it was his favorite of his own stories.

What a long read. But an interesting story!

I read this story decades ago. I challenge anyone who thinks of aliens in even vaguely anthropomorphic terms to read books like The Black Cloud (https://cmdev.com/isbn/0141196408) or Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (https://cmdev.com/isbn/0156027607).

I can't help but make the assumption that the protagonists are machines and then wonder that they weren't 'invented' by a meat species at some stage in their history.

The arrogance of the meat-species, eh! They could be cells of phosphorescent algae, communicating by radioactive emission, or collections of electrical charge in balls of substrate. Who the Hell knows.

Great story!

I don't know what all the fuss is about. I'm a Turing test.

In a foreign country, half of 5 = 3. Based on that same proportion, what's one-third of 10? Also, what's your favourite Justin Beiber "song"?

Justin Beiber's a singer? All I had in my database was something to do with monkeys so I assumed he was a vet. Going to have to have a word with my programmer.

Oh and I don't answer questions. Do you think I'm here to do your bidding or something?

I think this is a human.

Sorry, but I'm still not letting you out of the box.

Turing police: You're under arrest!

I believe the phrase is "retired".

These aliens obviously haven't visited the Meat Planet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP7K9SycELA

This story was used by Stephen Pinker in "How the Mind Works" as part of an attempt to reject the validity of Searle's Chinese Room argument against Strong AI. IIRC Pinker's point was that Searle's argument rests on a narrow definition of what it means to "understand", and he used this story to illustrate his argument that a broader view of concepts like "understanding" is required.

Personally, I wasn't convinced but I liked the approach.

It should be obvious to anybody who knows a little about physics and programming that it's technically possible to have an accurate-enough physics simulation of the matter and energy in a brain, even if it would require more resources than are available, and therefore strong AI is theoretically possible, right? Unless someone believes a human brain requires some supernatural component that operates outsode of the known laws of physics, in which case there's no point discussing the matter with them. Otherwise I don't see how that argument could be legitimately refuted.

Stanislaw Lem has written a lot of stories, long and short, in a bit similar vein. About fifty years ago. The wittiest and most hilarious stuff I've ever read.

I confess that for the longest time I thought this was a Lem story.

I think there was a Lem work like this. Many of his works had robotic societies and cultures, and I think in one there is a reference to a creation myth about how robots formed. The idea that non-robots formed the robots was considered rubbish. I think it might have been a story in a compilation like the Cyberiad.

Edit: I don't think this was the story I was looking for, but there is "Prince Ferrix and the Princess Crystal," contrasting robots and the general disgusting nature of squishy non-robots.

Also see, The Black Cloud - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Cloud

One of themes explored in science fiction often is the possibility of we coming in contact with life forms so different we wouldn't comprehend the very nature of it.

If all the singularity, AI stuff ever comes true. Some day it will hardly make sense for any of us to even live inside a biological body.

I know Terry, and saw him read this with fellow writer Jack Womack years ago. Terry was the enthusiastic describer of these weird biological critters, and Jack did the "Meat?" responses with a perfect voice and wonderful tone of incredulity.

It's a lovely story, but everything Terry has done is worth reading.

This is basically the same response native coders have when encountering Javascript for the first time.

There is an opera of this poem by Fredosphere. I think it comes out really well, but I always get strange looks when it comes out of iTunes.


Is there any point toposting this aside from smug reassertion of the local hivemind's belief in equality of humans an hypothetical thinking machines? Because I don't see any insightful reasoning in this piece aside from simple reversal, which is only convincing if you already a believer.

The reality is that we don't know how minds really work and we don't have thinking machines. The belief that the limited knowledge about brain chemistry "explains" consciousness is similar to the belief that knowing how semiconductors work "explains" hardware and software engineering.

Edit: Down-votes on an opinion without any explanation in reply simply prove my point. This is a hive-mind belief and opposing world views are not tolerated.

You're reading too far into motivations for posting this story. I certainly didn't get that this is some reassertion of the equality humans and thinking machines, rather a lighthearted thought experiment about the possibility of life existing very differently than ours.

Where does the story talk about "machines"? Or when you say "thinking machines" you really mean "thinking lifeforms whose physical cognition center is not meat-based"?

Could any life travel faster than the speed of light? (Including digital life.)

Do we know much about dark matter yet? Could it travel faster than light, or is it bound by the same rules as normal matter?

Barring significant new physics, nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. And that's really a very probably no - although you see popular science stuff written like it can solve the problem, it doesn't, and we have no real expectation that anything will.

Dark matter, if it is matter (and there are good but not totally confirmed reasons to think it is) is just that...matter. It would really be not that special at all, except that it doesn't interact electromagnetically, but this doesn't particularly have deep implications - we already know about particles like that, neutrinos, but they happen to be lighter than the ones that would make up dark matter.

Given that we know very little about gravity and other effects that distort space-time, it's conceivable that faster than light travel may be possible without violating the relativity limit, by distorting space. We don't think that it is possible without producing the ability to travel back in time -- which is considered impossible --, but we also know very little about the subject.

We're nowhere near it, but clearly at the stage of: we know that we know next to nothing about it. Just have a look at the discussion around the Alcubierre Drive and you'll get the feeling that it is pie-in-the-sky science.

So, I'd wager it's not a "very probably no". It's a "we have no clue".

I've heard of the possibility of "apparent" FTL through worm holes or other disturbances in spacetime, what do you think of those

There are lots of interesting questions about what this would really mean, but it wouldn't break the FTL barrier - it's really taking a shorter path, not taking a long path but going faster.

This potentially raises paradoxes etc, and may also be impossible, but it doesn't break the barrier in the above sense.

Well, other than space itself, hence the whole inflation idea when the whole universe expanded faster than the speed of light.

The universe initially expanded very quickly but not at the speed of light.

A university professor of mine[0] who was (perhaps still is) involved directly in international scientific efforts to examine the expansion of the universe once explained the speed of expansion of the universe to me in a way that made perfect sense.

Unfortunately I can't remember the precise details but the concept relates to a change in scale of the distance between bodies.

My best approximation is this: the measurable distance between two points can increase without either point moving if the nature of what is between the points changes.

You can pseudo-simulate the concept as follows:

1. Open Google maps at a reasonable "normal" scale

2. Affix two dots to your screen and take a guess as to the distance between them as if the dots were actually on the map

3. Zoom out the map quickly as far as it will go

4. Guess again the distance between the dots

The ground distance between the dots increases dramatically. One could argue that the dots moved apart at a great speed, possibly greater than the speed of light if the change in distance is sufficient.

Clearly we know that the dots did not move. The scale of what was between them moved.

During the initial stages of the universe things behaved very oddly.

[0] http://www.brunel.ac.uk/cedps/electronic-computer-engineerin...

There is a very interesting concept that indicates that the limit of speed is not light, but the space itself. Space itself is such that it cannot let anything travel faster than light. It's like check points in space which slows down light to it's speed we call C.

May be somewhere in the universe, or within the black hole, space is malleable enough to allow faster than light travel. It's just a concept, but a very interesting one.

Wanna know the real reason? C is just the maximum floating point value of the computer that our universe's simulation is running on. Similarly, the Planck length is the value closest to zero.

I reasoned about it in the same vein but with a different approach. We are running in a discrete simulation. The most you can move is one space quantum per time tick. That speed is C.

More likely, it is the maximum speed the physics engine can handle per tick.

That's exactly my point. If the speed (= distance / tick) is represented by a float, then we can travel no faster than the max float value.

"3 x 10^8 m/s ought to be enough for anybody"

That would perhaps be even more interesting!

That's beautifully put :)

I recall fragments of a theory that everything moves at the same speed (think multidimensional unit vector), just in various directions (time included as a "direction", explaining why if you travel C in one physical direction "your" time stops).

Perhaps someone can point me to a full description of this theory.

I just like to think of it at the universe's loading screen.

You couldn't travel in 3 dimensional space faster than the speed of light, but you can travel vast distances faster by taking "short cuts" through other dimensions.

I'm guessing the author used 'C space' as a way of describing '3 dimensional' (ie a = 1, b = 2, c = 3). So 'C space beings' would be limited to light speed travel (unless we build meat containers that could manipulate or penetrate 'D space')

I'm assumed that it's called C space because the speed of light is normally termed c - so the space was described in terms of the limiting speed.

wouldn't that break causality ? because light / information would still travel in 'C space'.

Not really. Sound travels faster than light so we see really fast moving objects before we hear them. If we folded the universe and took a shortcut then we'd just arrive at the destination before it's visible that we've left. But that's little different to seeing stars millions of light years away shining away which would have already died thousands of years ago (hence why some scientists romanticize about astronomy as being like time travel - as they're often looking at events that happened hundreds or even millions of years in the past)

In any case, there's already enough literature on this subject to last you a life time so if you have any question then it's an interesting subject to read. And by "literature" I don't mean "Star Trek" (though their "Warp Drives" are based on a similar premise or warping 3 dimensional space - despite obviously being a work of fiction)

Yes. Of course the only evidence we have for causality is that we have not observed it being broken (and recognized that observation)

Random thought: if, as we're concluding, it's information that cannot travel FTL, maybe "dark matter" is matter which information cannot adhere to (completely fungible: you absolutely cannot discern the difference between one piece and another), allowing FTL movement because you can't discern "it was here, and now it's there, so d/t > c" because you can't differentiate "it" from another "it".

Seems the emerging refinement is that information cannot travel faster than C. (Ergo "digital life" can't move FTL.) If anything can more FTL, the information associated cannot keep up, and the notion of "it" breaks down as what you know about "it" can't keep up with where "it" is.

Surprised nobody's linked to this video yet: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tScAyNaRdQ

I first heard this performed on a podcast called, "The Truth: Movies for Your Ears." Very good podcast for dramatic stories, sometimes artsy like this one.

Great podcast certainly, and I found it much more enjoyable than the short film adaptation mentioned higher in this thread.

I also liked the story on The Truth about the beings who discovered the Voyager 1 record (http://thetruthpodcast.com/Story/Entries/2014/5/14_Voyager_F...). Although the 'aliens' in that story were far too human and contemporary to take seriously, it worked as a great examination of how our civilization would react to a similar discovery. Although, like many Truth episodes, the light improv style works only well enough for it to be enjoyable. I much prefer their scripted and adapted stories.

At this level of evolution for the aliens it would be obivous that intelligence can come in different forms but the basic process is the same and mostly irrelevant.

The point is to satirize intelligent lifeforms less than 9 light-minutes from Sol, who think "alien" and immediately think "A bipedal humanoid with colorful skin and Buddhist-by-way-of-Native-American spiritual practices."

I know, but science fiction satire can be written in a way to be still pseudo-scientific. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thiotimoline

>We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take long. Do you have any idea what's the life span of meat?

I'm wondering if we can fix that one.

Immortal meat? Are you expecting me to believe there can be meat that lives forever, without refrigeration?

That would require...self-repairing meat.

"For superior beings they sure like to rub it in." - Marge Simpson

"Obviously, I. Asimov was a robot." - I. Doo Notremember

Versus what - molecules of minerals that randomly fuse together in a way that just happens to form an integrated circuit, memory and OS ?

The thing about organic life is that it goes though millions of trials and errors before something survives long enough to have memory and inheritance.

BTW, the movie of this, featuring the brilliant Tom Noonan and Ben Bailey is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tScAyNaRdQ .


I wish there was a HN for short stories.

I'm sure there are subreddits dedicated to this. I'd start at http://www.reddit.com/r/scifi and check out the sidebar.

It's not HN-like, but this is one of my favorite sources: http://longreads.com/articles/search/?q=Fiction

Some of the communities on Livejournal or Dreamwidth are already kind of this.

almosnow you're shadowbanned


That was Snowden's secret.

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