[ExI] Maximum biological lifespan

Anders anders at aleph.se
Sun Aug 14 13:33:14 UTC 2016

On 2016-08-14 04:20, David Lubkin wrote:
> Will Steinberg wrote:
>> Sometimes it feels pointless to even hypothesize about things like 
>> that because there is no upper limit on the possible utter and 
>> never-ending foreignness to humans of things that possibly exist, 
>> which means that most of existence is incomprehensible?
> As someone who is occasionally paid to write sf, the point is to 
> hypothesize credibly enough to sell the story.

There is an interesting balance between likelihood and salience. One can 
tell a story about likely but not very salient things, but unless one is 
a stylistic master able to make it interesting it is boring (much of 
mainstream literature deals with likely topics). Likely and salient is 
of course gold, but it is hard to find great topics that are not already 
endlessly exploited (love, social struggle, war). Speculative fiction 
generally deals with things of high salience but low likelihood, getting 
a way larger space to explore for interesting topics. Since the topics 
are unlikely they may also get a bit of a boost: we like hearing about 
radical, surprising things.

There seems to be different levels one can aim for: hard sf aims at 
things that have somewhat less arbitrariness than soft sf and fantasy, 
so the internal consistency creates a rewarding framework for the reader 
to think about while reading (a bit like how good detective novels give 
you all the necessary evidence and you can in principle solve the case 
before the library scene). Softer stories can instead play up surprise 
by adding more exotic and salient events, at the price of more 
arbitrariness and lower likelihood. The most extreme cases take mere 
possibility and spins a yarn from it. Done right it can still tell a 
great story, but it needs to rely on good storytelling, extreme salience 
and maybe that some other patterns in the story (say the emotional 
reactions or moral) map onto more real patterns.

When I invent alien ecologies I typically think about what I am going to 
use them for: background, the centerpiece of the story/rpg, or explore 
some curious aspect. That typically tells me how likely it must be: 
background ecology should obey normal scaling laws and biochemistry, 
centerpiece ecologies may have a few quirky or unlikely traits (I like 
the hard sf principle of allowing at most one entirely made up tech; one 
can allow oneself at most one made-up evolutionary leap/weird 
biochemistry), a fiction about one aspect should start with the aspect 
and then construct the most likely surroundings for that aspect to make 

Dr Anders Sandberg
Future of Humanity Institute
Oxford Martin School
Oxford University

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