Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Robert J. Sawyer Shows Not Tells At Surrey International Writers Conference

In a room packed with rapt would-be, beginning and established writers, Robert J. Sawyer (“the dean of Canadian science fiction”—Ottawa Citizen) gave a great last workshop at the SIWC: “Show and Tell” (okay, that was telling, wasn’t it, Rob?). Every creative writing teacher (and Chapter T of The Fiction Writer by Pixl Press) will tell you that “showing is a lot more effective than telling”. But do they SHOW it? LOL! Rob did, with panache and humor.

The SIWC, held in Surrey, British Columbia, is an impressive writers conference, this year hosting over fifty authors, agents, editors, publishers and film makers from New York and beyond (yes, there is a beyond): the likes of Sarah Lovett, Diana Gabaldon, Bob Mayer, Mary Jo Putney, Jack Whyte, Meg Tilly, Deborah Ellis, Robert J. Sawyer and so many more congenially talked craft with students of writing, as they wandered the halls looking for their venue or ducked outside for a smoke. Writers who are serious about their craft can sign up for master classes. They can show their work to professional writers for advice. They can pitch their stories to editors and agents during scheduled times or, if they’re a little more adventurous (like me) they can do two things at the same time: have a drink and give a pitch to an agent at the bar. Much more efficient. And enjoyable (mischievous satisfied grin).

A madcap ten-track workshop/panel schedule offered provocative titles like: the 90 Minute Novel; Get Over Yourself—and Get Writing; Intimacy Reporting; Real Criminals I Have Known; SIWC Idol

New York Times best-selling novelist Diana Gabaldon (author of the Outlander series) provided both very entertaining and instructional workshops on anything from characterization to "Prestidigitation, Sleight of Hand & How to make Readers Look Where You Want Them To". One of her most memorable presentations was conducted entirely as a conversation she had with herself as she constructed a story out of a single scene. Super agent, Donald Maass, grappled with "tornadoes" (plotting) while Jack Whyte breathed life into minor characters. Elizabeth Lyon, editor and author of several writer's guides, offered some very erudite workshops, including one on movement.
Which brings me back to Rob’s “Show and Tell” workshop. One of Rob’s most effective ways of illustrating the benefit of “show” rather than “tell” came through his humorous and dynamic interaction with his audience. He engaged directly with someone in the front row (take note) to demonstrate different ways of greeting someone and used his own physique to give an example of “show” and “tell”:
Tell: “Rob is bald.”
Show: “the light shone off the top of Rob’s head.”
Because of other commitments that weekend (see my previous post) I was zipping across town between the conference and the writers’ festival. Serendipity seemed to intervene each time, and I collided into old friends and colleagues at the most opportune moment. For instance, I met up with Lois J. Peterson—who is launching her new YA book, Meeting Miss 405 (Orca Young Readers), Saturday, November 1 at the Newton Library, 13795-70 Ave at 12 noon—and she was just heading to the bar as I walked into the hotel. We settled in with drinks and snacks to discuss matters of deep importance such as why lemons float in a gin and tonic but olives don’t in a martini. Oh, you know the answer? Well, you didn’t just spend two hours in the bar consuming the source of the question either, did you?

Another special someone joined me at the bar…my old friend and trusty companion … Toulouse! And wouldn’t you know it, he made more friends than I did! Somewhere between my fourth and fifth trip to and from the con, he’d slipped into my backpack and wouldn’t take no for an answer at the bar; Toulouse knew a good time when he smelled it.

I am next driving to Calgary to participate in the World Fantasy Convention (at the Hyatt Regency) Oct. 30-Nov 2, where I will be doing book signings and several readings. If you're nearby, come over. I'd love to see you. Guests include David Morrell, Barbara Hambly, publisher Tom Doherty of Tor Books, Tad Williams and Todd Lockwood, among many others.

I am giving a reading Thursday, October 30 and Saturday, November 1, both at 8pm. I am signing my book at the Edge table at 5pm on Saturday. Hope to see some of you there.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Nina Goes to the Library & Reads a Book

I traveled a lot this past weekend, both literally and metaphorically. Between two gigs (e.g., the Surrey International Writers Conference and the Ladner Writers Festival) I must have driven 200 km and drank twenty liters of coffee. I’ll reserve the Surrey International Writing Conference for my next post and focus here on the Ladner Writers Festival.

Held at the Ladner Pioneer Library, the festival hosted six local writers, including Gordon Fairclough, Nina Munteanu, Marie Warder, Gwen Szychter, Cynthia Sully, and Louise Latremouille. The event was a “meet and greet” and included readings by some of us. We were a mixed bag, representing non-fiction works on regional history and how to run a PC, to memoirs and fiction stories of overseas life … and finally … you guessed it … science fiction thrillers.

I had a great time, I met some wonderful people, I learned a little about local history and I ate some incredible food (mugs a huge grin with watercress stuck between her teeth…). Well, writers will do just about anything when great food and tolerable coffee is offered.

p.s. Oh, by the way, how do you like my “new” look? “Does she or doesn’t she (photoshop)?” LOL! Should I or shouldn’t I? Please comment before next week when I go to the World Fantasy Convention and I shall be oh so grateful!

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

We, Robot--Part 2: Artificial Intelligence Today

Artificial Intelligence: the ability of computers to perform functions that normally require human intelligenceEncarta World English Dictionary, 1999.

Dr. Mark Humphrys of Dublin City University defines artificial intelligence as "engineering inspired by biology.” Today's robots and AI systems are no smarter than insects. Despite this current limitation, there are many reasons to sit back and enjoy the myriad of services technology has created for humanity through AI systems. AIs now play chess, checkers, bridge, and backgammon at world-class levels (e.g., IBM's chess computer, Deep Blue, beat Garry Kasparov, the world champion, in 1997). They compose music, prove mathematical theorems, synthesize stock option and derivative prices on Wall Street, make decisions about credit applications, diagnose motor pumps, and act as remedial reading tutors for elementary school children. Robots mow your lawn; conduct complex scientific research, surveillance and planetary exploration; track people; play table soccer; and act as pets. But they can't "think" like you and me. And they don't possess common sense . . . yet.

Today, AI systems are still nothing more than glorified adding machines or "idiot savants," capable of manipulating vast amounts of data a million times faster than humans. AIs can't understand what they are doing and have no independent thought. They also can't program themselves. Today's most complex robots use a simple feedback mechanism to move and act (e.g., Attila, MIT's "insectoid" robot), based on paradigms used in nature to simulate intelligence. Like real insects, these automatons are capable of making their own decisions (e.g., symbolic AI like Shakey, the first mobile robot built in 1969, which contained an internal model of its micro-world), as opposed to the industrial robots on assembly lines, which are pre-programmed. In the final analysis AIs are still an oxymoron.

Artificial intelligences still have a long way to go before attaining anything remotely close to a human's thought process and achieving what we call "common sense" (e.g., nothing can be in two places at the same time). But the new approach to AI known as "nouvelle AI," pioneered at MIT in the late 1980s by Rodney Brooks, appears more likely to attain complex reasoning than previous approaches. The previous top-down approach championed by Douglas Lenat and others attempted to endow AI with an encyclopedia of "common sense" (e.g., Cyc).

Instead, Brooks' team uses bottom-up biology-based models of intelligence by implementing a long history of interaction with the world and other biology-based intelligent systems, rather than force-feeding abstract reasoning and logical deduction. This is called "situated AI," the building of embodied intelligences situated in the real world and following the process of "the normal teaching of a child." As Kaku said of this philosophy of AI: "learning is everything; logic and programming are nothing." According to Dr. Kaku, the most successful AI systems, like Brooks' biology-based models, are those that learn like we do, through trial and error (e.g., Terry Sejnowski's neural network, NETalk, that learned the English language heuristically).

In the meantime, AI components are getting smaller and more affordable. The first nanochip was produced by the semiconductor industry in 2000, not only packing more transistors per cubic centimeter but also lowering the cost per transistor, increasing the speed of microprocessing, and permitting a whole new array of uses for and within humans. Which brings us to the two major areas of AI development: 1) robots and AI systems external from humans; and 2) interactive implants inside or on human bodies.

External Systems

Regarding the first, Dr. Michio Kaku, cofounder of string field theory and author of Hyperspace, describes a new branch of AI research called heuristics, which would codify logic and intelligence with a series of rules and would permit us by 2030 to speak to a computerized doctor, lawyer, or technician who could answer detailed questions about diagnostics or treatment. These "intelligent agents" may act as butlers, perform car tune-ups, perhaps even cook gourmet meals.
However, despite their many human-like characteristics, such systems remain a far cry from achieving what we call "real intelligence." They would still be glorified automatons, albeit sophisticated diagnostic tools, taking on the form of a human figure on a screen or a humanoid robotic form. Although they would give the appearance of human intelligence and likely pass the Turing Test, these essentially pre-programmed systems would not "think," be "self-aware," or have "common sense" as we know it. According to Dr. Kaku, this level of consciousness, which is the ability to set one's own goals, may only be achieved after 2050, when he predicts the top-down and bottom-up approaches to AI development will meet, giving us the best of both.

Internal Systems

Regarding the second area of AI development, research labs are already developing a vast array of "intelligent clothes," which can interface with us and enhance memory, awareness, and cognition. Along with these exterior enhancements, microchip implants, such as radio frequency identification devices (RFIDs) inserted in humans, are gaining momentum. On May 2, 2002, the first human was "chipped" for security reasons; the idea was that if he became ill or impaired, professionals could access his medical history by scanning his microchip implant. The next step in the evolution of this technology is the ability to track people using GPS and connect to additional personal information of importance such as medical data. Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer calls such devices "companions," as used by an alternative society in his Neanderthal Parallax trilogy. Since 9/11 the idea of national identification has gained much approval by US citizens.

Medical implants are not new; they are used in every organ of the human body. More than 1,800 types of medical devices are currently in use. These run the gamut from heart valves, pacemakers, and cochlear implants, to drug infusion devices and neuro-stimulating devices for pain relief or to combat certain disorders like Parkinson's.

On October 14, 2003, the Associated Press announced that monkeys with brain implants could consciously move a robot arm with their thoughts, representing a key advance by researchers at Duke University, who were hoping to permit paralyzed people to perform similar tasks. Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, declared, "We're on the verge of profound changes in our ability to manipulate the brain." New developments in neuroscience promise to improve memory, boost intellectual acumen, and fine-tune emotional responses through brain implants.

This excites transhumanists, who seek to expand technological opportunities for people to live longer and healthier lives and enhance their intellectual, physical, and emotional capacities through the use of genetic, cybernetic, and nanotechnologies. From the transhuman perspective, "in time the line between machines and living beings will blur and eventually vanish, making us part of a bionic ecology."

The US National Science Foundation and the Department of Commerce initiated a program that "wires together biotechnology, IT, and cognitive neuroscience (under the acronym of NBIC) into one megatechnology by mastering nano-scale engineering." In a detailed report that projected twenty years into the future, the authors declared that: "understanding of the mind and brain will enable the creation of a new species of intelligent machine systems." The report envisioned technological achievements that would seize control of the molecular world through nanotechnology including the re-engineering of neurons "so that our minds could talk directly to computers or to artificial limbs." Brain-to-brain interaction, direct brain control devices via neuromorphic engineering, and retarding of the aging process would then be feasible.

Future Systems

When might all this be possible? Some of it is already occurring (e.g., the recent work of Duke University mentioned above). Dr. Kaku asserted that "after years of stagnation in the field of artificial intelligence, the biomolecular revolution and the quantum revolution are beginning to provide a flood of rich, new models for research." Drawing on the insight of AI pioneers like Hans Moravec of Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Kaku suggested that this may happen only once the opposing schools of AI research amalgamate, combining all the ways humans think and learn: heuristically, by "bumping into the world;" by absorbing certain data through sheer memorization; and by having certain circuits "hard-wired" into our brains. He predicted that this would occur sometime beyond 2050, at which time AIs would acquire consciousness and self-awareness. MIT artificial intelligence guru and transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil, agreed in his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines, that sentient robots were indeed a near-term possibility: "The emergence of machine intelligence that exceeds human intelligence in all of its broad diversity is inevitable." Kurzweil asserted that the most basic vital characteristics of organisms such as self-replication, morphing, self-regeneration, self-assembly, and the holistic nature of biological design can eventually be achieved by machines. Examples include self-maintaining solar cells that replace messy fossil fuels and body-cleaning and organ-fixing nanobots.

When you mention AI and robotics, we tend to polarize. Some of us are truly excited by all this and others of us are truly frightened (see this previous post of mine on artificial intelligence). Then there are those who are both excited and frightened! When I sat on several panels dealing with AI, robotics and science at Vcon (Vancouver's science fiction and gaming convention), I found this to be the case. This was not so much determined by intelligence, knowledge or insider's information; I think it was more a result of our own world-view and faith in humanity: are we optimists or pessimists?

This is an excerpt of an article I wrote in Strange Horizons several years ago, entitled "AI: Changing Us, Changing Them" (for more of the article and comments, go here). Go to the right sidebar for more articles from my series on artificial intelligence under my favorite science posts. Ciao!

Recommended Reading:

Humphrys, Mark. "Reaching out to over 15 million people" in, The Future of Artificial Intelligence.
Kaku, Michio. Visions: how science will revolutionize the 21st century, Anchor Books Doubleday, New York. 1997. 403pp.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines, Penguin Books, New York. 1999. 253pp.
Ford, Kenneth & Patrick J. Hayes. "On Computational Wings: rethinking the goals of artificial intelligence", in Scientific American Presents: Exploring Intelligence 9 (4) Winter. 1998.
Copeland, Jack. "What is Artificial Intelligence?" in May 2000.
Hutcheson, G. Dan. "The First Nanochips," in Scientific American 290 (4): 76-81. April, 2004.
Pentland, Alex P. "Wearable Intelligence", in Scientific American Presents: Exploring Intelligence 9 (4) Winter. 1998.
CBC News:, May, 2002; Julie Foster in, 2001.
Gaitherburg, MD. Medical Implant Information Performance, and Policies Workshop, Sept. 19-20, 2002. Final Report.
Sawyer, Robert J. The Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, TOR.
Alex Dominguez (Associated Press). "Monkeys move robotic arms with their minds," in: The Vancouver Sun, October 14, 2003.
Center of Cognitive Liberty & Ethics:
WTA World Transhuman Association.
Thomas, Jim. "Future Perfect?" in The Ecologist, May 22, 2003.
National Science Foundation and Department of Commerce. "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance: Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science." 2002. 402pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.

Friday, October 17, 2008

We, Robot—Part 1: Our Past, Our Present, Our Future

Mechanical “beings” have been with us since ancient times. The myths of Greece, China, the Middle East and Norse mythology have all explored the use of machines—robots—that could lessen our work. In ancient literature, the Greek god Hephaestus created mechanical servants; Jewish legend described clay golems and Norse mythology described clay giants. There was also Galatea, the mythical statue of Pygmalion that came to life. In 1495, Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans for a humanoid robot that could sit up, wave its arms and move its head and jaw.

The word robot was introduced to the public in 1921 by Czech writer Karel Čapek in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word comes from robota which means “drudgery” or “hard work”.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Hero’s Journey—Part 3: The Journey’s Map

Heroism cannot be measured by the overt grandeur of the act, not even by the ensuing consequences, but by the swelling conquering heart commiting the act--Nina Munteanu

In this article I map out the Hero’s Journey for two popular mythic stories, STAR WARS and FARSCAPE using Christopher Vogler’s 12-stage description of the 3-act storyline (based on Campbell’s 8-step transformation model) and discussed in my writing guide, The Fiction Writer:

  • Ordinary World: Describes the Hero’s world with its problems and how the hero may or may not quite fit in.
  • Call to Adventure: the herald presents the hero with a problem, challenge and/or adventure; irrevocably changing the ordinary world—in STAR WARS this is when Obi Wan approaches Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan; in FARSCAPE it is when John conducts his test and is sucked into the wormhole.
  • Refusal of the Call: Our reluctant hero balks at the threshold of adventure. In STARWARS Luke refuses at first until he finds his relatives killed. In FARSCAPE this is Crichton during most of Season One.
  • Meeting with the Mentor: The mentor provides the hero with a gift to help her through the threshold. In STAR WARS Obi Wan gives Luke his lightsaber; In FARSCAPE Crichton’s father presents him with his lucky chain. His father’s “form” reappears as a wise alien who provides Crichton with ancient knowledge of wormhole technology, another talisman that will represent Crichton’s further transformation into mythic hero status in Season Four.
  • Crossing the Threshold: The hero commits to the adventure and enters the Special World.
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies: The hero must face tests, makes allies and enemies and begins to learn the rules of the Special World. In STAR WARS Luke is initiated into his special world by Obi Wan in A New Hope; in FARSCAPE Crichton’s initiation and transformation occurs throughout Season One, where he must continually prove his worth to his challenging companions aboard Moya.
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero reaches the edge of the most dangerous place, often where the object of her quest resides. In STAR WARS this is the scene in The Empire Strikes Back when Luke willingly enters the trap set for him and confronts Vader in Cloud City; in FARSCAPE Crichton also willingly enters a trap to save his love, Aeryn and is captured and tortured.
  • Ordeal (the Abyss): Our hero hits bottom, where she faces “death” and is on the brink of battle with the most powerful hostile force. In STAR WARS Luke steps into the abyss, choosing almost certain death when forced to surrender at his father’s bidding to the dark side in Cloud City; in FARSCAPE John loses his mind (his most valuable tool and weapon as hero) and kills what he loves the most, his beloved Aeryn (end of Season Two).
  • Reward/seizing the sword(Transformation & Revelation): Having survived “death” (of fear or ignorance) our hero—and the reader—receives a reward or elixir in the form of an epiphany and transforms. In STAR WARS this happens. In STAR WARS, Luke returns in Return of the Jedi transformed and mature with new powers; in FARSCAPE Crichton receives a revelation from his “copy” who had died and his call to action. By the end of Season Three, Crichton has his second transformation into hero of mythic stature. “This is my path,” he informs his companions as he calls on them all to join him on his largest most ambitious quest as true hero to stop Scorpius on the Command Carrier in a suicidal mission.

  • The Road Block: Our hero must deal with the consequences of confronting the dark forces of the Ordeal (e.g., often the chase scene). In STAR WARS this is when Luke is forced to fight his father on board the Death Star, overseen by the evil Emperor; in FARSCAPE this occurs throughout Season Three with the culmination of the infamous coin toss.
  • Resurrection/Atonement: The hero is transformed in this climactic moment through her experience and seeks atonement with her reborn self, now in harmony with the “new” world; the imbalance which sent her on her journey, mostly corrected or path made clear. In STAR WARS this is when Luke makes the choice not to kill his father, is almost destroyed by the emperor but for Vader’s intervention and Luke reconciles with his father; In Season Four Crichton comes to terms with the revelation of his true path with news of Aeryn’s pregnancy and her departure…he must deal with his new focus (to protect his beloved and her world) when she—and Scorpius—return.
  • Return with the Elixir: Our hero returns to the Ordinary World with some elixir, treasure, or lesson from the Special World. In STAR WARS the last scenes with Luke and his Jedi “family” suggest a new life rich in lessons; in FARSCAPE Crichton returns to his old home, Earth, with alien technology. However, his true gift is how he secures the safety of his new home and is presented with the gift of his child.

You can read my previous posts on the Hero's Journey, the first on "The Journey" and the second on "Archetypes".
This article is an excerpt from The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! (Starfire World Syndicate, 2009) (Part One of the Alien Guidebook Series). The Hero's Journey is also part of my online writing class and workshops. This lecture/workshop series will be available summer 2010 on DVD at Amazon.

Recommended Reading:
Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.
Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.
Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.