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The Hero With A Thousand Chances

58 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 04:25AM

"Allow me to make sure I have this straight," the hero said.  "I've been untimely ripped from my home world to fight unspeakable horrors, and you say I'm here because I'm lucky?"

Aerhien dipped her eyelashes in elegant acknowledgment; and quietly to herself, she thought:  Thirty-seven.  Thirty-seven heroes who'd said just that, more or less, on arrival.

Not a sign of the thought showed on her outward face, where the hero could see, or the other council members of the Eerionnath take note.  Over the centuries since her accidental immortality she'd built a reputation for serenity, more or less because it seemed to be expected.

"There are kinds and kinds of luck," Aerhien said serenely.  "Not every person desires their personal happiness above all else.  Those who are lucky in aiding others, those whose luck is great in succor and in rescue, these ones are not always happy themselves.  You are here, hero, because you have a hero's luck.  The boy whose dusty heirloom sword proves to be magical. The peasant girl who finds herself the heir to a great kingdom.  Those who discover, in time of sudden stress, an untrained wild magic within themselves.  Success born not of learning, not of skill, not of determination, but unplanned coincidence and fortunes of birth:  That is a hero's luck."

"Gosh," said the hero after a long, awkward pause, "thanks for the compliment."

"It is not a compliment," Aerhien said, "but this is: that you have taken good advantage of your luck.  Our enemy does not speak, we do not know if there is any aliveness in it to think; but it learns, or seems to learn.  We have never won against it using the same trick twice.  It is rare now that a hero succeeds in conceiving a genuinely new trick, for we have fought this shadow long under our sun.  For this reason we have taken to summoning heroes from distant dimensions with other modes of thought; sometimes one such knows a truly new technique, and at least they fight differently.  But far more often, hero, the hero wins by luck."

"Huh," said the hero.  He frowned; more in thought, it seemed, than in displeasure.  "How... very odd.  I wonder why that is.  What kind of enemy can be defeated only by luck?"

"A nameless enemy and null," said Aerhien.  "Structureless and empty, horrible and dark, the most terrifying thing imaginable:  We call it Dust.  That seems to be its only desire, to tear down every bit of structure in the world, grind it into specks of perfect chaos.  Always the Dust is defeated, always it takes a new shape immune to its last defeat."

"I wonder," murmured the hero, "if it will run out of shapes, and then end; or if it will finally become invincible."

(One of the other Eerionnath shuddered.)

"I do not know," Aerhien said simply.  "I do not know the nature of the Dust, nor the nature of the Counter-Force that opposes it.  The Dust is terrible and our world should long since have ended.  We are not fools enough to believe we could be lucky so many times by chance alone.  But the Counter-Force has never acted openly; it never reveals itself except in - a hero's luck.  And so we, the council Eerionnath to prevent the world from destruction, are at your disposal to command; and all the power and resource that this world holds, for your battle."

And she, Aerhien, and the council Eerionnath, bowed low.

Then they waited to see if the hero would demand dominions or slaves as payment, before condescending to rescue a people in distress.

If so they would dispose of him, and summon another.

This one, though, seemed to have at least some qualities of a true hero; his face showed no avarice, only an abstracted puzzlement.  "A hidden Counter-Force..." he murmured.  "Excuse me, but this is all very vague.  Can you give me a specific example of a hero's luck?"

Aerhien opened her mouth, and then the breath caught in her throat; suddenly and involuntarily, her memory went back to that huge spell gone out of control which had blasted the then-form of the Dust, killed the hero her lover, ruined their home and country, and rendered her accidentally immortal, all those centuries ago -

Ghandhol, the second-oldest of the council, must have guessed her silent distress; for he spoke up to cover the gap:  "There was a certain time," he said gravely, "when the hero of that age, sent off the entire army of the world in a diversionary attack against the strongest fortification of the enemy.  While he, with but a single friend, walked directly into enemy territory, carrying undefended the single most valuable magic the Dust could possibly gain.  Then the Dust captured and corrupted the hero's mind.  And when all seemed absolutely lost, they only won because - in an event that was no part at all of their original plan - a hungry creature bit off the hero's finger and then accidentally fell into an open lava flow, which in turn caused -"

"That was an extreme case," said one of the younger councilors; that one looked a bit nervous, lest this hero get the wrong idea.  "None since have tried to imitate the Volcano Suicide Hero -"

"Ah!" said the hero in a tone of sudden enlightenment.

Then the hero frowned.  "Oh, dear..." he said under his breath.

The councilors looked at one another in mute puzzlement.  The hairs pricked on Aerhien's neck; she had lived long enough to have seen almost everything at least once before.  And her lover had frowned, just like that, an instant before his spell went wild.

The hero's brow was furrowed like a father whose child has just asked a question which has an answer, but whose answer no child can understand.  "Do you..." he said at last.  "Do you have knowledge... about the khanfhighur... that's not even translating, is it.  Do you know about... the things that things are made of?  And are the things constantly splitting all the time?  Not singly, but in - in groups -"

The other councilors Eerionnath were staring at him in mute incomprehension.  But Aerhien, who had been through it all before, gravely shook her head.  "We do not possess that knowledge; nor do we know why our sun burns, or why the sky is red, or what makes a word a spell; nor has any summoned hero succeeded in raveling them."  Aerhien held up her hand.  "Hand, made of fingers; beneath the finger, skin and muscle and vein, beneath the muscle, sharrak and flom.  That is the limit of our knowledge.  Some worlds, it seems, are harder to ravel than others."

The hero waved it off.  "No, it doesn't matter - well, it matters a great deal, but not for now.  I only asked to see if I could get confirmation... it doesn't matter."

Aerhien waited patiently; they were rare, this sort of hero, but the more distant and alien sort did sometimes treat her world as a puzzle to be solved.  She usually sought those similar enough in body and mind to feel empathy for her people's plight; but sometimes she thought of the great victory won by the Icky Blob Hero, and wondered if she should look further afield.

"What would happen if the Dust won?" asked the hero.  "Would the whole world be destroyed in a single breath?"

Aerhien's brow quirked ever so slightly.  "No," she said serenely.  Then, because the question was strange enough to demand a longer answer:  "The Dust expands slowly, using territory before destroying it; it enslaves people to its service, before slaying them.  The Dust is patient in its will to destruction."

The hero flinched, then bowed his head.  "I suppose that was too much to hope for; there wasn't really any reason to hope, except hope... it's not required by the logic of the situation, alas..."

Suddenly the hero looked up sharply; there was a piercing element, now, in his gaze.  "There's a great deal you're neglecting to tell me about this heroing business.  Were you planning to mention that the 'hero' which your council chooses and anoints, often turns out not to be the real hero at all?  That the Counter-Force often ends up working through someone else entirely?"

The members of the council traded glances.  "You didn't exactly ask about that," said Ghandhol mildly.

The hero nodded.  "I suppose not.  And the Volcano Suicide Hero - what exactly happened to him, that caused no hero to ever dare tempt fate so much again, in the history you remember?"

"His home country was ruined," Aerhien said softly, "while the army marched elsewhere on his diversion.  It threw him into a misery from which he never recovered, until one day he set sail in a ship and did not return."

The hero nodded.  "Poor payment, one would think, for saving the world."  The hero's face grew grim, and his voice became solemn and formal, mimicking Aerhien's cadences.  "But the Counter-Force is not the pure power of Good.  It seems to care only and absolutely about stopping the Dust.  It cares nothing for heroes, or countries, or innocent lives and victims.  If it could save a thousand children from death, only by nudging the fall of a pebble, it would not bother; it has had such opportunities, and not acted."

Ghufhus, the youngest member of the council, grimaced, looking offended.  "How is it our right to ask for more?" he demanded.  "That we are saved from the Dust is miracle enough -"

Ghufhus stopped, noticing then that the other Eerionnath were sitting frozen.  Even Aerhien's mask of dispassion had cracked.

"Ah..." Ghufhus said, puzzled.  "How do you... know all this?  Is there a Counter-Force in your own world?"

Fool, Aerhien thought to herself.  The hero had seemed puzzled by the idea, at first, and had needed to ask for examples.  She decided then and there that Ghufhus would meet with an accident before the next council meeting; their world had no room for stupid Eerionnath.

And the hero himself shook his head.  "No," the hero said.  "You have never summoned a hero who remembers a Counter-Force like yours."

This was also true.

"Nor will you ever," the hero added, "unless you try some way of seeking that specifically, in your summoning.  It would never happen by accident."

Aerhien willed her stiff lips to move.  It should have been wonderful news, but the hero himself seemed anything but happy.  "You... have fathomed the nature of the Counter-Force?"

The hero nodded.

"And?" Aerhien said.  "What is the rest of it?  The part you are still considering whether to tell us?"

Ghandhol's eyebrows went up a tiny fraction, and his head tilted ever so slightly toward her, signaling his surprise and appreciation.

The hero hesitated.  Then he sighed.

"The Counter-Force isn't going to help you this time.  No hero's luck.  Nothing but creativity and any scraps of real luck - and true random chance is as liable to hurt you as the Dust.  Even if you do survive this time, the Counter-Force won't help you next time either.  Or the time after that.  What you remember happening before - will not happen for you ever again."

Aerhien felt the nausea; like a blow to the pit of her stomach it felt, the end of the world.  The rest of the council Eerionnath seemed torn between fear and skepticism; but her own instincts, honed over long centuries, left little room for doubt.  The distant heroes sometimes knew things... and sometimes guessed wrong.  But after a hero had been right a few times, you learned to listen to that one, even if you couldn't understand the reasons or the logic...

"Why?" Ghufhus said, sounding skeptical.  "Why would the Counter-Force work all this time, and then suddenly -"

Ghandhol interrupted with the far more urgent question.  "How can we restore the Counter-Force?"

"You can't," said the hero.

There was a remote sadness in his eyes, the only sign that he knew exactly what he was saying.

"Then you have pronounced the absolute doom of this world," Ghandhol said heavily.

And then the hero smiled, and it was twisted and grim and defiant, all at the same time.  "Oh... not quite absolute doom.  In my own world, we have our own notions about heroes, which are not about heroic luck.  One of us said: a hero is someone who can stand there at the moment when all hope is dead, and look upon the abyss without flinching.  Another said: a superhero is someone who can save people who could not be saved by any ordinary means; whether it is few people or many people, a superhero is someone who can save people who cannot be saved.  We shall try a little of my own world's style of heroism, then.  Your world cannot be saved by any ordinary means; it is doomed.  Like a child born with a fatal disease; it contained the seed of its own death from the beginning.  Your annihilation is not an unlucky chance to be prevented, or an unpleasant possibility to avert.  It is your destiny that has already been written from the beginning.  You are the walking dead, and this is a dead world spinning, and many other worlds like this one are already destroyed."

"But this world is going to live anyway.  I have decided it."

"That is my own world's heroism."

"How?" Aerhien said simply.  "How can our world live, if what you say is true?"

The hero's eyes had gone unfocused, his face somewhat slack.  "You will deliver to me the record of every single hero that your history remembers.  You will bring historians here for my consultation.  Your world cannot survive if it must fight this battle over and over again, with the Dust growing stronger each time.  It is my thought that on this attempt, we must neutralize the Dust once and for all -"

"Do you think that hasn't been tried?" Ghufhus demanded incredulously.

The hero smiled that twisted smile again.  "Ah, but if you had succeeded, you would not have needed to summon me, now would you?  Though I am not quite sure that is valid logic, in a case like this...  But it does seem that none of the other heroes fathomed your Counter-Force, which puts an upper limit on their perception."  The hero nodded to himself.  "All things have a pattern.  Bring me the records, and I will see if I can fathom this Dust, and the limit of its learning ability - there must be a limit, or no amount of luck could ever save you.  All things have a cause:  If something like the Dust came into existence once, perhaps a true Counter-Force can be created to oppose it.  Those are the ideas that occur to me in the first thirty seconds, at any rate.  I must study.  Bring me your keepers of knowledge.  They will be my army."

Aerhien bowed, in truth this time, and very low, and the Eerionnath bowed with her.  "Command and we shall obey, hero," she said simply.

The hero turned from her, and looked out the window at the red sky, and the small dots on the land that were the homes of the innocents to be protected.

"Don't call me that," he said, and it was a command.  "You can call me that after we've won."

"But -"

It was Ghufhus who said it, and Aerhien promised herself that if it was a stupid question, his accident would be a painful one.

"But what is - what was the Counter-Force?"

Aerhien wavered, then decided against it.

It might not matter now, but she also wanted to know.

The hero sighed.  "It's a long story," he said.  "And to be frank, if you're to understand this properly, there's a lot of other things I have to explain first before I get to the ahntharhapik principle."

Comments (154)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 04:27:31AM *  14 points [-]

Notes:

(1) As best I recall, this is the first story idea to come to me in a dream, that has actually worked. Though it's more of a story fragment than a story. And I left out the part about how Albert Einstein was the hero summoned immediately before this one, and then ever afterward Einstein was only happy when working on carving a sculpture of a dragon, because when I woke up, that part didn't seem to make any sense.

(2) I think the hero might be overcomplicating things and taking an overly direct approach. I can think of something else I'd be trying in this situation. Besides intelligence-enhancement spells, I mean.

Comment author: BrandonReinhart 01 August 2009 01:41:51AM *  31 points [-]

Ah yes, intelligence enhancement spells. I like to call this a "Morrowind Singularity." Drink intellect enhancing potion: craft another, better, intellect enhancing potion. Repeat until incredibly intelligent. Craft special weapon using enhanced intellect, defeat boss in a single hit.

Comment author: gwern 01 August 2009 08:07:09AM 10 points [-]

Does that actually work?

(I can't decide whether that would mean Morrowind's game mechanics are broken, or just really awesome.)

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 01 August 2009 03:58:43PM 9 points [-]

Yes, it does work, and the answer to the latter question is arguably "both".

Comment author: Auroch 30 December 2010 09:29:33PM 7 points [-]

Yes, and both.

It is also possible to increase your jumping to such a high level that you jump across the continent in one leap. However, the spell wears off before you have crossed halfway, so you have to refresh it just before landing in order to not die on impact.

Comment author: Nanani 03 August 2009 12:45:44AM 2 points [-]

Awesome!

I've never played Morrowing but now it seems like a good way to spend future vacation time.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 02 August 2009 02:01:07AM 2 points [-]

I believe there's a video of a speed run done that way somewhere on the internet.

It took less than 15 minutes to beat the game, if memory serves me.

Comment author: gwern 02 August 2009 09:05:13AM 4 points [-]

http://speeddemosarchive.com/Morrowind.html has a ~14 minute speed run that has as one step 'Create and drink Fortify Intelligence in batches of 5'. That it?

Comment author: TheLostHibiki 28 August 2012 01:40:26PM *  0 points [-]

Such a thing as your Morrowind Singularity might be better called the Elder Scroll Singularity as you can do this in all of the Elder Scroll games to one extent or another. A cycle of potions of Fortify Enchantment and magic items of Fortify Alchemy will give you the same results in Skyrim. Though I will admit that the Morrowind Singularity is a better sounding name than the Elder Scroll Singularity.

Comment author: JamesAndrix 31 July 2009 05:46:48AM 7 points [-]

I suggest linking the 'untranslated' words to appropriate articles.

Comment author: Emily 01 August 2009 10:10:57AM 0 points [-]

Aw. I like the Einstein bit.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 31 July 2009 11:10:04AM -1 points [-]

stories can gain richness through unexplained details. this may be "cheating" on the author's part, but who cares, they make them more enjoyable. otherwise you fall into the pure allegory trap.

Comment author: SilasBarta 31 July 2009 03:15:16PM *  1 point [-]

It is cheating; otherwise, why I can't I just randomly generate a story and then wag my finger at people who don't "get" what everything refers to, while never offering an explanation of my own?

For an example of this practice at its worst, see the move 2001: A Space Oddessy, starting from the "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" card.

Comment author: nazgulnarsil 03 August 2009 01:37:38PM 3 points [-]

and 2001 is considered a masterpiece. kubrick wins.

Comment author: orthonormal 31 July 2009 06:10:23PM 0 points [-]

Well, you know that there was a quite coherent idea behind that sequence (made clear in the 2001 novel Arthur C. Clarke then wrote), but that when it came to filming it... well, it's Stanley Kubrick.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 03 August 2009 05:37:37PM 0 points [-]

How much evidence do we have that the idea preceded the sequence, rather than being a post-hoc rationalization ("techno-babble")? I'm sure there's a lot of both in the relation between the book and the film.

Comment author: SilasBarta 01 August 2009 04:32:28AM *  0 points [-]

Yeah, good point. Just to clarify, the book is okay with regard to that sequence, but the movie, taken in isolation, basically gives up on trying to make sense there. And Kubrick wasn't big on explaining what it meant, thereby leaving the heavy lifting to the viewer.

Moviegoers should not be expected to bring their own superior allegory mappings.

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 August 2009 05:05:50AM 0 points [-]

And then there are those that never tried to make sense in the first place, such as the film Eraserhead by David Lynch, and the anime/manga FLCL...

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 31 July 2009 06:55:25AM *  12 points [-]

Nice story. I was about to say that while the Hero was right in considering anthropic explanations of the Counter-Force, he probably should have considered that merely as a candidate hypothesis and waited until he examined the records before concluding that anthropic effects were the entirety of the CF... Until I recalled this bit: "...Were you planning to mention that the 'hero' which your council chooses and anoints, often turns out not to be the real hero at all? That the Counter-Force often ends up working through someone else entirely?"

Which, given that the councilors seemed to admit to, supports an anthropic explanation...

Except that there is, apparently, a piece of evidence against anthropic explanations of it: Given the anthropic CF, wouldn't there then be many more worlds in which the hero tried and failed completely, and they had time to summon another hero?

The implication seems to be that each time they had a hero go up against it, there was some success somehow somewhere, even if not through the hero's own efforts or even through him or her at all.

For that matter, wouldn't there be far more worlds that ended up with them saying "We used to have a Counter-Force protecting us from the Dust, but for some mysterious reason, it seems to have stopped as of late"

The very fact that even though it was established that a failure of the counter-force would result in a very slow defeat, with plenty of time to summon more heroes for further attempts... the Hero found himself in a world which remembers, up to that moment, the Counter-Force consistently working. This would seem to be more than a small ding against a purely anthropic explanation.

At least so it seems to me.

EDIT: probably shouldn't post late at night when I'm tired. Made some small corrections.

Comment author: pdf23ds 17 September 2009 12:52:44AM 11 points [-]

You are the walking dead, and this is a dead world spinning, and many other worlds like this one are already destroyed."

"But this world is going to live anyway. I have decided it."

"That is my own world's heroism."

I think your quoting is messed up here. All three of these lines are the hero's, correct? You should remove the end quote from the first two lines.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 17 September 2009 03:06:02AM 6 points [-]

I've heard that theory and it's so grotesquely ugly in a case like this that I just can't bring myself to go along with it.

Comment author: Cirne 13 December 2010 07:14:51PM 6 points [-]

Have you played any, or are you a fan of, interactive fiction? If so, and you haven't played this particular game before, I recommend you look at The Gostak. It's an entire story written using standard IF principles and conventions, only every noun, verb, adjective, and adverb has been changed to be semantically unrecognizable but syntactically familiar to an English speaker. It is based on a thought experiment from The Meaning of Meaning; in short, the meaningless sentence "The gostak distims the doshes" allows you to generate three interconnected floating beliefs, one about the gostak, one about distimming, and one about doshes.

The core of language and communication is common convention. If your intent is to create a visually-pleasing pattern of pixels on a screen or ink on paper, you can change any part of your writing you like. You can change every word to a made-up word that only uses half-height letters, use the capital X as your sentence-ending punctuation, and as long as the story is internally consistent, people could still conceivably generate meaning from it. If they try hard enough, they might even generate the meaning you intended, but you would by necessity have a smaller audience.

Is your primary goal to communicate your ideas to others using a common language, or is it to create visual artwork? No matter your personal feelings on the aesthetics of different parts of the language, if you violate conventions, all you're doing is harming the former in favor of the latter.

Comment author: Auroch 30 December 2010 09:17:29PM 1 point [-]

This viewpoint assumes that this convention makes it easier to communicate ideas. This is not true a priori, and certainly false for some conventions (that against splitting infinitives for instance).

In this case, I think you are wrong and that the convention is not sufficiently widely known/accepted to aid in communication.

Comment author: Baruta07 25 October 2012 01:35:24AM *  0 points [-]

From the few minutes I've seen of it it looks amazing. If anyone wishes to play it here's A link

Comment author: pdf23ds 18 September 2009 09:32:11PM 8 points [-]

Well, it certainly gave me a good strong confusing. You could at least append a ",' he continued." or something.

Comment author: MrCheeze 10 December 2010 09:54:32PM 3 points [-]

I had trouble reading it too. If you really don't want to do it like that, then at least just take out all the quotes except for at the very beginning and end of the speech (no quotes at all between paragraphs).

Comment author: bogdanb 12 May 2010 11:15:34AM 5 points [-]

I also had the same reaction. I had to re-read the three sentences a couple of time to convince myself it was the hero who said them all.

The convention also seemed weird when I started reading English — my native language uses different conventions for dialogue, not involving quotes — but now I find it “non-standard” uses (like yours) confusing.

Oh, well, the author gets to pick :-)

Comment author: [deleted] 25 October 2012 01:54:18AM *  1 point [-]

Agree. Nonetheless, seperate quotations usually mean seperate speakers.

I wonder if a solution could be "X continued, 'blah blah'"

Or do something really sensible but alien and quote the whole block with > or Lua-style [[...]]

Comment author: bogdanb 12 May 2010 11:50:51AM 9 points [-]

Maybe we’re overly pessimistic. It just occured to me that Aerhien’s world might actually be on the unlucky branch.

Suppose that the “branching point” is not whether or not the hero succeeds (that is, one branch lives, the other is destroyed). Instead, it could be whether or not the dust “finds” another way of attacking.

In the other branches, the defeat of the dust was finally successful (at the first try in one world, second try in another, or ~fiftieth attempt in the nearest-neighbor branch).

It is only in the unlucky branch that the dust keeps finding new ways of being nasty, and thus only in the unlucky branch there is a never-ending need to summon new heroes.

The other worlds don’t need to keep summoning heroes because they simply won, not because they simply lost.

Note that in this case most instances of Aerhien would live in in “nice” worlds. That is, among worlds with Aerhien, most measure is concentrated in successful worlds. However, among worlds with a newly-summoned Hero, most if not all measure is concentrated in threatened worlds (even if this is only a tiny sliver of the “total” measure).

Comment author: STL 31 July 2009 07:12:04PM 17 points [-]

I am not Omega - you can call me the sum of torque and wavelength... that's not even translating, is it - and I cannot see your source code. However, I will go ahead and offer you, epsilon upsilon, the following deal:

If you tell me that you flipped a coin to determine the current hero's gender, then I will mail you a check for 100 USD, in support of this admirable method for overcoming bias. Other forms of ritual sacrifice to the Random Number God are acceptable, but not meditation - I can see your hardware, and your brain is not a proper temple of the Random Number God.

As a sovereign rationalist, you are free to reply to me or not, accept my deal or not, and lie to me or not. I await your reply or lack thereof!

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 07:13:34PM 14 points [-]

Ha! I tried doing that, the generator came up female... and I realized that I couldn't make Aerhien a man, and that having two "hers" and "shes" would make the dialogue harder to track.

Sometimes a random number generator only tells you what you already know.

(FYI, I was in an airport at the time, so I decided to close my eyes, look in a random direction, open them, and see what gender the first person I saw was... and even though they were both female, I then realized I had to discard the result.)

Comment author: Alicorn 31 July 2009 07:54:50PM *  0 points [-]

Why couldn't Aerhien have been a man? Were you that committed to the "perfect eyelash" line? Would having a dead spouse be an uncompelling backstory for a male character?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 09:14:46PM 11 points [-]

Uh... I have to ask, at this point, if you've ever tried your hand at writing fiction. Some characters are male, some characters are female, some can be either. The hero might have been either-able. Aerhien wasn't. She is the wise female council leader, not the wise male council leader. Galadriel and Elrond are not interchangeable. And besides, she was female in my mind and that's that.

Comment author: kess3r 01 August 2009 03:04:40AM 9 points [-]

What I want to know is if any of them are black.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 August 2009 05:30:59AM 3 points [-]

I honestly haven't the vaguest idea. In the beginning I was visualizing Aerhien as having pointed ears, which made her light-elvish, but I decided against that. Generally I don't give my characters a color unless they need an ethnic background.

Comment author: Tiiba 02 August 2009 06:08:39AM *  7 points [-]

Make her octarine. That would be eminently appropriate.

Comment author: Aurini 02 August 2009 07:19:29AM 5 points [-]

You know when it comes to racism, people say: " I don't care if they're black, white, purple or green"... Ooh hold on now: Purple or Green? You gotta draw the line somewhere! To hell with purple people! - Unless they're suffocating - then help'em. ~Mitch Hedburg

Comment author: Alicorn 31 July 2009 09:20:44PM 4 points [-]

Yes, I have. I guess you just didn't communicate the essential female-ness of Aerhien very effectively (at least to me), because it didn't seem to me like it was very important to what limited character development she got.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 August 2009 10:55:14AM 0 points [-]

I guess you just didn't communicate the essential female-ness of Aerhien very effectively (at least to me), because it didn't seem to me like it was very important to what limited character development she got.

The background story that was alluded to came across quite clearly. Not only did the character emerge sufficiently that a sex change would have felt awkward, it left me grasping for the tantalising details that couldn't quite be fit into the short story format.

Comment author: woozle 01 August 2009 02:16:38PM 5 points [-]

The question of "what gender is", when you strip away the purely anatomical, is a topic of great interest to me.

It seems to me that while Aerhien's gender wasn't essential to the story, there were certain aspects of her personality that hinted at it (and I'm not talking about the eyelashes) -- but I wouldn't go beyond that; if she had been written as male, I don't think I would have sensed any incongruity.

Without further biasing the discussion by mentioning what I think those personality aspects might be, I'm curious to find out what attributes other people thought made her essentially female -- among those who hold this position, that is.

Comment author: lucidfox 30 November 2010 12:04:42PM 1 point [-]

"Essential" in what sense?

Are we arguing about some Platonic "essentials", in that fictional characters "actually exist somewhere"? I believe that the fictional characters were formed in Eliezer's brain as representations of certain archetypes (such as, as he noted, the "wise female council leader") that he felt best represented the characterization he was intending to give them.

It doesn't mean the story wouldn't work if the characters were given different genders or other different characteristics. It means that the author would find it unfitting to his semi-conscious concept of the story and its fictional setting, which is unknown to us except for what's revealed in the text, and is necessarily richer than the text. Or at least, I generously assume that this is what Eliezer was arguing - that "she had to be female" meant "I believe she worked best as female as the representation of my character role concept", not a postulation of some fictional Platonism.

Comment author: eirenicon 31 July 2009 08:18:14PM 2 points [-]

Why couldn't a man dip his perfect eyelashes?

Comment author: Alicorn 31 July 2009 08:21:54PM *  1 point [-]

He could. I just would have been surprised to see it mentioned in a story. It's rarely considered to bear mentioning in a work of fiction if a male character has perfect eyelashes and happens to bat/dip/flutter them, unless this is used as a way to lampshade some stereotypical notion of effeminacy.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 August 2009 04:17:57PM 6 points [-]
Comment author: SilasBarta 01 August 2009 05:55:38PM *  0 points [-]

And for the part of that story that would not sit well with feminists (1) , check out this excerpt :

The Confessor held up a hand. "... Do you know there was a time when nonconsensual sex was illegal?"

Akon wasn't sure whether to smile or grimace. "The Prohibition, right? During the first century pre-Net? I expect everyone was glad to have that law taken off the books. I can't imagine how boring your sex lives must have been up until then - flirting with a woman, teasing her, leading her on, knowing the whole time that you were perfectly safe because she couldn't take matters into her own hands if you went a little too far -"

...

"Um," Akon said. He was trying not to smile. "I'm trying to visualize what sort of disaster could have been caused by too much nonconsensual sex -"

Interesting discussion follows in the comments.

(1) ETA: Or me, or most people in general.

Comment author: CronoDAS 31 July 2009 08:07:09PM 1 point [-]

My guess is that Aerhien was inspired by a specific character from another story.

Rick Cook's "Wizard's Bane" has Shiara the Silver; that was a neighbor that came to mind when I wrote Aerhien.

Either that, or Eliezer simply liked the name. But, yeah, that's a good question.

Comment author: billswift 08 October 2010 10:57:31AM 0 points [-]

Actually, I was reminded of the immortal empress in Harry Turtledove's novel "Noninterference".

Comment author: STL 02 August 2009 05:13:55AM 1 point [-]

I'm surprised - I hadn't expected that you consulted, then disregarded, the Random Number God.

It's your story, of course - but I note that Charles Stross got away with having multiple female characters and virtually no male characters (other than love interests and cardboard authority figures) in the first few Merchant Princes novels, and inversely for innumerable other authors. Of course, Stross could distinguish his characters by referring to this one or that one as an assassin princess (there are several of those, but the main character is not).

Also, I'm surprised that there have been so many other comments about Aerhien's gender, but not about the hero's - the "perfect eyelashes" line jumped out at me, but not as much as the fact that the "smart guy who figures out what's going on" was a guy.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 August 2009 05:42:38PM 3 points [-]

My girlfriend also says the "perfect eyelashes" line gave her an ick reaction, which made me realize that the phrase is a cliche - associated from textual memory, not visualized. I've edited that line.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2009 06:38:17AM 3 points [-]

I hadn't expected that you consulted, then disregarded, the Random Number God.

It's also worth noting that the nameless hero started out male, and Aerhien as female, on account of those having been the applicable genders in the dream - this is a dream-inspired story, my first. I consulted the RNG to try and reassign the hero's gender but discovered almost immediately that it would have been awkward.

The dream originally occurred from the hero's perspective, btw, but from a writer's standpoint it was obvious that the main character couldn't be the hero.

Comment author: STL 02 August 2009 02:07:23PM 1 point [-]

from a writer's standpoint it was obvious that the main character couldn't be the hero.

At least, not without changing the tone of the story to something resembling StarkRavingMad's Boatmurdered updates.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2009 05:38:00AM *  2 points [-]

I've written fiction with highly intelligent female characters, thank you. Not published, but written, yes.

(And while we're on the topic, I've written, though not finished, fiction in which the main character is female, the hyperintelligent characters are female, and female characters talk, to each other, about something other than a man, with no lesbian overtones whatsoever between any pair of them. Thank you.)

Comment author: brian_jaress 02 August 2009 09:34:45AM 2 points [-]

Does that make it harder to have them share your ideas? I suspect that irrelevant (to the story) similarities and differences between the characters and the author affect the process, even more than the relevant ones.

It could explain why you rejected the results of random selection. Her purpose was to see your ideas from the outside, and the relevant difference that she didn't share them needed some irrelevant differences to prop it up.

Comment author: STL 02 August 2009 02:03:27PM 1 point [-]

My apologies if my comments seemed accusatory; it's hard to bring up this kind of issue - which I think is fairly important - without sounding confrontational. I should mention that I found this story to be excellent, and I learned a new way of looking at things, that rarest of treats. I just noticed that Jeffreyssai, the ultra-badass Confessor, and the nameless hero were all male, and considered it sufficiently interesting to ask about.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2009 04:51:12PM *  1 point [-]

Jeffreyssai and the Confessor are obtrusive, explicit rationalists - I've already written about that writing problem of mine, which is my own problem as a writer.

Comment author: HalFinney 31 July 2009 10:09:15PM 14 points [-]

I remember reading once about an experiment that was said to make rats superstitious.

These rats were used in learning experiments. They would be put into a special cage and they'd have to do something to get a treat. Maybe they'd have to push a lever, or go to a certain spot. But they were pretty good at learning whatever they had to do. They were smart rats. They knew the score, they knew what the cage was for.

So they did a new experiment, where they put them into the training cage as usual. But instead of what they did bringing the treat, they always got a treat exactly 30 seconds after going into the cage. This continued for a while, and what happened was the rats each learned an individual behavior to bring the treat. One would go to a corner, another would turn in circles, another would stand up on its hind feet. And sure enough, the treat came. Their trick worked.

I imagine the society in Eliezer's story had something similar happen. Given the anthropic effect we are postulating, they don't actually have to do anything - a certain fraction of the worlds will get lucky and survive. But after it happens a few times, the survivors may well assume that what they were doing at the time their "luck" arrived was causative. In this case, they had a hero who seemed to get lucky. Maybe several heroes. And then somewhere they got the idea of summoning them from other worlds. After all, if they need a lucky hero to save them, they should get the luckiest heroes they can find. (I wonder what this hero had done to earn their selection?)

But there would be just as many other worlds, even instances of the exact same world, which have developed their own superstitions about what defeats the evil. They each carry out their rituals, and in each case, it works - for the survivors. We just choose to eavesdrop on a world which had a particularly interesting and amusing superstition.

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 August 2009 04:05:07AM *  4 points [-]

On the other hand, for all we know, since the laws of physics in this universe allow for magic, the spell might actually do what the Council thinks it does - summons a hero who brings along the proper kind of luck for getting through the current crisis.

"I summon Deus Ex Machina!"

I know what Eliezer intended the story to mean, but narrative causality seems like a more likely culprit than the anthropic principle for this particular world's survival. Considering this is a world in which the events of Lord of the Rings actually happened, if I were the hero, I'd be assuming that there's a writer of some kind involved.

Comment author: HalFinney 01 August 2009 04:32:50AM 4 points [-]

I thought maybe we were hearing about the LOTR story through something like the chronophone - the translation into English also translated the story into something analogous for us.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 31 July 2009 10:58:15PM 9 points [-]

Given the anthropic effect we are postulating, they don't actually have to do anything - a certain fraction of the worlds will get lucky and survive.

No, the fraction of worlds which "get lucky and survive" is determined by the strategies the people use.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 August 2009 10:47:01AM *  1 point [-]

But there would be just as many other worlds, even instances of the exact same world, which have developed their own superstitions about what defeats the evil. They each carry out their rituals, and in each case, it works - for the survivors. We just choose to eavesdrop on a world which had a particularly interesting and amusing superstition.

It's a fascinating anecdote, but not relevant. They did everything they could to combat the overwhelming odds. And the anthropic principle suggests that we should expect to find ourselves in a world that does just that. Particularly when facing an enemy that learns from its failures. As Peter alludes to, those worlds that don't do something remarkable yet still manage to survive would be sliced incredibly thin.

Comment author: orthonormal 31 July 2009 06:20:56PM *  6 points [-]

It surprises me that nobody's shared my immediate reaction: that the world is most likely a simulation (run in another world that makes sense) which is set up to obey narrative causality (i.e. the Counter-Force) rather than a coherent set of laws. In other words, a Supervised Universe. And given that, I don't believe the main character should conclude that his Genre Savviness means the end of the Counter-Force...

ETA: Huh, somehow I missed ShardPhoenix's comment saying the same thing.

Comment author: CronoDAS 31 July 2009 07:13:48PM 4 points [-]

Yeah, the Counter-Force sounds a lot more like a fiction writer than the anthropic principle. Especially a writer like Stephen R. Donaldson, who loves torturing his characters before they manage to succeed in defeating the forces of evil.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 August 2009 11:01:37AM 3 points [-]

And yet, 'fiction writer' and 'anthropic principle' are incredibly alike in nature. In both cases we select universes from among the potential space based on the desired or implied survival of the protagonist. All else being roughly equal I would advocate the anthropic principle over a hypothesised external 'creator'.

Comment author: Kingreaper 03 December 2010 04:41:14PM *  4 points [-]

All else is not equal.

The anthropic principle would tend to involve the most minorly improbable thing.

ie. The whole volcano issue: which would be more improbable, not having the ridiculously close brush with defeat in the first place, or surviving it?

On the other hand, an authorial hand tends to seek out victories of low probability in preference over not just defeat, but also over victories of high probability.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 31 July 2009 11:01:01PM 0 points [-]

We should have a rule against linking to TV Tropes.

Comment author: Nanani 03 August 2009 12:43:42AM 5 points [-]

The hero is so obviously a troper. Indeed, only a genre-savvy troper could hope to defeat the Dust.

Comment author: Fetterkey 01 August 2009 02:01:44AM 0 points [-]

Why?

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 01 August 2009 02:04:47AM *  3 points [-]

Because of this.

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 August 2009 05:44:15AM 1 point [-]

I don't consider that a drawback.

Comment author: Fetterkey 01 August 2009 05:28:06AM *  1 point [-]

Shouldn't rational individuals be able to avoid such perils?

Comment author: wedrifid 01 August 2009 10:57:24AM 4 points [-]

By, for example, acknowledging their weaknesses and managing their environment such that it doesn't waste valuable willpower on trivialities.

Comment author: Fetterkey 01 August 2009 09:29:26PM 0 points [-]

The amount of will necessary to close a window is itself trivial, if will can indeed be considered a resource to be spent.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 August 2009 02:08:13AM 3 points [-]

The amount of will necessary to close a window is itself trivial,

Many people find the will cost non negligible. While I don't actually know (or want to know) exactly what TV troups is, avoiding the temptation to, say, follow links from google reader to lesswrong.com is a sufficient expense that I often install leechblock for months at a time.

if will can indeed be considered a resource to be spent.

Willpower can absolutely be considered a resource to be spent. References on request or on google. In fact, I seem to recall the topic coming up here once or thrice.

Comment author: Fetterkey 02 August 2009 05:02:40AM 4 points [-]

You are right. Thank you for pointing that out, you have helped me improve.

Comment author: CronoDAS 02 August 2009 06:11:46AM 1 point [-]

The TV Tropes Wiki is a wiki about recurring elements in fiction, such as situations, character types, and plots, which are collectively referred to as "tropes".

Be warned, though. TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life.

Comment author: rwallace 31 July 2009 10:06:05PM 1 point [-]

Yes, especially since we are talking about a world where magic works, something like that would be my first alternative explanation to the anthropic one. As I remarked in another comment, I would reserve judgment on which was more likely until I looked more closely at the data, especially at just how many times the world got lucky, because the improbability of the anthropic explanation is an exponential function of that.

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 01 August 2009 06:00:43PM 3 points [-]

The (narrative) fact that the leaders of this world believe that magic works isn't a convincing argument that magic works. For most of Earth's history, its leaders have believed in various forms of magic. You're still better off believing in natural causality.

Even if it turns out that there is something that looks like magic before you study it, it ought to look like science by the time you're done formalizing it.

Comment author: rkyeun 16 April 2014 04:15:20AM 0 points [-]

When someone summons me from another dimension, they get a little bit of leeway to tell me it's magic. Because at the very least it must be a sufficiently advanced technology, and until I know better the axiom of identity applies.

Comment author: orthonormal 31 July 2009 10:11:49PM 0 points [-]

especially since we are talking about a world where magic works

Exactly: the principle behind Universal Fire would be strong evidence for the hypothesis of a narrative-driven simulation.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 August 2009 04:23:28PM 2 points [-]

One assumes that either their universe does run on QM and has additional principles laid on top of it, or the spell operated as a physiology translator. I assumed the latter, and yes, thank you, I worked it out in advance.

Comment author: orthonormal 01 August 2009 06:51:41PM 0 points [-]

Could you share some of the main character's thought process in ruling out the "narrative-driven simulation" hypothesis in favor of the anthropic one? I still would see that as the most likely conclusion were I in the main character's shoes, since it would require a much simpler root universe than a world with trans-universal magic spells and resistance to reductionism.

If I'm ruining the point of the story, though, then I'm OK with giving up this line of questioning. Some suspension of disbelief (and departure from Bayesianism in characters) is certainly warranted even in rationalist fiction...

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2009 01:33:45AM 3 points [-]

Well, since the beginning, not one unusual thing has ever happened. Now in Aerhien's world, magic works, which is in fact unusual, and in reality has never happened. However, by writing the story, I counterfactually postulated, within the story confines, that magic has happened, implying that magic is not unusual. So the hero, within the story confines, does not see anything unusual about it either.

That is, along with the counterfactual "magic is not unusual" I also postulated the reflective levels "magic is not perceived as unusual", "magic not being perceived as unusual is not seen as an unusual thought process", etc.

Comment author: orthonormal 02 August 2009 03:16:40AM 0 points [-]

Fair enough; I don't want to ruin a fine story by nitpicking the protagonist's prior. I was mainly wondering whether there was some bit of evidence I was missing, or whether this was just part of the necessary suspension of disbelief. I'm fine with it being the latter.

Comment author: wedrifid 31 July 2009 05:46:05AM 4 points [-]

Ouch. That just made the anthropic principle real for me.

Comment author: rwallace 31 July 2009 05:52:08AM 7 points [-]

Indeed; once one understands that failure comes with a whimper not a bang, the history of our own world seems to me to contain quite a few just barelys, from a planet barely large enough to evolve sentient life, to quirks of psychology that led people to make advances the benefits of which could not have been apparent at the time. This story sums it up pretty nicely.

Comment author: wedrifid 31 July 2009 06:14:39AM 2 points [-]

Those quirks of psychology do seem like a rather big 'just barely'.

Comment author: ShardPhoenix 31 July 2009 11:24:13AM *  2 points [-]

Isn't it much more likely from the hero's perspective that he's in a (rigged) simulation (that therefore may well keep going as it has been) rather than in a genuine quantum luckworld? I guess it depends how many unlikely victories there have been, and how unlikely they in fact were. Still, the protagonist seems to be jumping to conclusions a bit.

I did like the story though.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 31 July 2009 06:03:36AM 2 points [-]

"Ah..." Ghufhus said, puzzled. "How do you... know all this? Is there a Counter-Force in your own world?"

Fool, Aerhien thought to herself. The hero had seemed puzzled by the idea, at first, and had needed to ask for examples. She decided then and there that Ghufhus would meet with an accident before the next council meeting; their world had no room for stupid Eerionnath.

That's a bit harsh, don't you think? Maybe the Counter-Force is known by a different name in the Hero's own world, and he asked for examples to make sure they're the same thing.

Actually, why doesn't the Hero's world have a Counter-Force? Shouldn't every world have something like it? How many times have our world escaped from the brink of nuclear annihilation, for example?

Comment author: Furcas 31 July 2009 06:22:30AM 9 points [-]

Actually, why doesn't the Hero's world have a Counter-Force? Shouldn't every world have something like it? How many times have our world escaped from the brink of nuclear annihilation, for example?

It's not a question of how many times we've come dangerously close to annihilation, but of how obviously we've done so.

In Aerhien's world, it's obvious because, yes, it's happened many times, but especially because it's happened in such a way that they've noticed it every time, thanks to the Dust's habit of gradual conquest and oppression.

In our world, however... well, you ask how many times we've "escaped from the brink of nuclear annihilation". We don't know, exactly, and we don't know how close we really got to annihilation. It's not obvious that we really got that lucky, so we had no reason to dream up a Counter-Force.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 31 July 2009 08:15:19AM 1 point [-]

That's a good answer, but what about the fact that none of the heroes remember a Counter-Force? Because the summoning process samples according to measure, and worlds with Counter-Force have measures that are too small? But how could the Hero have inferred that, just by knowing that he doesn't remember a Counter-Force?

Comment author: Jordan 01 August 2009 12:23:52AM 2 points [-]

If the Counter-Force is the Anthropic principle then those worlds that have postulated Counter-Forces are essentially only those that have experienced very long sequences of unlikely events. Hence the measure of those worlds must be very small.

Comment author: Wei_Dai 02 August 2009 01:11:29AM 12 points [-]

I'm not sure why it took me this long to realize this, but by the anthropic principle, the Counter-Force is almost certainly not the anthropic principle, but something that really exists in the world, e.g., some kind of intelligent agent, physical force, principle of magic, or rule of simulation.

Consider two worlds that are otherwise identical except that world A has a real Counter-Force, and world B doesn't. Initially, world A has lower measure since it has higher complexity. But as time goes on, the fraction of world A that survives will massively outweigh the fraction of world B that survives. So, both the Hero and Aerhien should conclude that they're almost certainly in world A.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2009 01:26:09AM 2 points [-]

I was waiting to see how long it would take for someone to point this out.

And the "answer" - which, yes, I devised in advance - is that the Dust destroys its worlds completely by compressing the probability out of them, whereupon the probability mass ends up in other worlds. Sort of like "mangled worlds" only these are "squeezed worlds" that have the reality-juice squeezed out of them.

However, anyone in a particular world thus destroyed, gets to observe the takeover of the Dust, since the Dust requires some time to actually compress that world out of existence.

Alternatively we can suppose that a majority of all worlds performing summonings are those in Aerhien's situation: no worlds with a "real" Counter-Force, or worlds that permanently destroyed their Dust, are performing summonings in significant measure. For example, the Dust's existence could be integral to the summoning process.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 18 November 2009 05:07:34AM 3 points [-]

Actually, a better answer than the one I originally thought of, is that the Dust is responsible for their world splitting (in a way which causes it to increase in measure). So worlds which permanently defeat the Dust don't increase in measure past that point, worlds in which the Dust takes over don't summon anyone, and hence the majority of measure in worlds that can still perform summonings are those worlds which have survived but not yet defeated the Dust.

Comment author: rwallace 02 August 2009 04:21:39AM 1 point [-]

I pointed it out a few days ago :-)

The Dust's existence being integral to the summoning process sounds plausible - it would help to explain why there isn't a large measure of surviving/victorious worlds engaging in cross universe commerce. Intuitively, that fits with the Dust squeezing probability mass; perhaps it creates something like a comet's tail of evaporating improbability, some of which the summoning spell taps?

Comment author: cousin_it 12 May 2010 12:37:09PM 0 points [-]

Wait, doesn't the same argument prove the existence of a God in our world that keeps rescuing life from disaster?

Comment author: Wei_Dai 12 May 2010 01:29:13PM 2 points [-]

No, because our world hasn't had as many "lucky coincidences" as Aerhien's. It seems to me that we are not seeing more "lucky coincidences" than a typical evolved intelligent species would see, looking back on the history of its world.

Comment author: FeepingCreature 23 July 2013 06:38:39AM 0 points [-]

I think the most we can say is that there hasn't been a disaster in our history that would have required great luck to stop. Our world has nothing like the dust; our destruction is not nearly that intrinsically assured. So whatever coincidence saved us, anthropomorphically, would not look like an Act of Great Luck; it would look like the sort of thing that you could convince yourself in retrospect must have been more probable than it seemed at the time. Long, drawn-out sequences of individually credible chances.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 August 2009 05:33:02AM 0 points [-]

Because the summoning process samples according to measure

This seems like a really reasonable assumption. I mean - what sort of summoning process would not sample according to measure? What would it sample according to instead, which would not be weighted by measure somewhere along the way?

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 August 2009 05:39:14AM 3 points [-]

You know, I just noticed that "Ghufhus" is a MeaningfulName. (It looks like it's pronounced "Goofus.")

Comment author: HalFinney 31 July 2009 09:58:55PM 3 points [-]

Actually, why doesn't the Hero's world have a Counter-Force? Shouldn't every world have something like it? How many times have our world escaped from the brink of nuclear annihilation, for example?

Right, like the way the LHC keeps breaking before they can turn it on and have it destroy the universe. Sooner or later we'll figure out what's happening.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 01 August 2009 06:12:36AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Tiiba 02 August 2009 06:52:20AM 2 points [-]

I wonder what it will look like when the scientists finally realize that their precious creation will never work, because it's doomed to just keep breaking until it's scrapped.

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 August 2009 06:21:33AM 1 point [-]

I think that just goes to show that it takes a lot of tries to get all the bugs out of equipment still in the "experimental" phase instead of the "mass market consumer product" phase. Remember those failed space missions you've heard about on the news?

Comment author: wedrifid 31 July 2009 06:12:18AM 1 point [-]

Actually, why doesn't the Hero's world have a Counter-Force? Shouldn't every world have something like it? How many times have our world escaped from the brink of nuclear annihilation, for example?

It would seem likely! Obviously the strength and visibility of the perceived force would depend on the level of probabilistic threat your world has been exposed to.

Comment author: lavalamp 31 July 2009 06:49:26AM 2 points [-]

So, is Aerhien's immortality the result of something like a quantum suicide? :)

This is a good piece of SF, but it suffers from a severe case of an ailment common to the genre, which is that someone who's never heard of X (in this case the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the anthropic principle) isn't going to have a clue what the hell you're talking about. Additionally, it's kinda hard to tell at first what elements of the story are made up (magic words, dust, summoning, etc) and what we're supposed to connect up with something from science (I would have figured out ahntharhapik principle eventually, probably).

Comment author: eirenicon 31 July 2009 04:41:39PM *  4 points [-]

I caught on when the hero said the Counter-Force would never return, although what really made it click was when ShardPhoenix called it a "quantum luckworld", which is a beautifully descriptive term. Still, I would have liked to see the hero go on to actually explain a little of the ahntharhapik principle to the council at the end; then it wouldn't just be a good story for the LW audience but a good story for anyone. Right now, you have to figure out the payoff for yourself, which only works if you are already familiar with the underlying concepts.

Comment author: thomblake 31 July 2009 02:13:26PM 0 points [-]

Well, you write for your audience. Most of the relevant background is actually discussed somewhere on this site.

Comment author: lavalamp 31 July 2009 03:30:31PM 3 points [-]

Of course. It's just that I'd like to use this to introduce (it's short and interesting) the anthropic principle to people (should I ever have the occasion to do so), but you can't understand this without knowing about the anthropic principle. :(

Comment author: Hans 31 July 2009 09:35:45AM 0 points [-]

"someone who's never heard of X (in this case the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and the anthropic principle) isn't going to have a clue what the hell you're talking about."

Yeah, that must be why I didn't understand anything. But I got the tolkien reference!

Comment author: FrankAdamek 31 July 2009 02:38:37PM *  1 point [-]

I passed along the story that alien message to a friend of mine, and he thought it was an interesting story but completely failed to notice the AI connection, even though he was a little familiar with those ideas. I didn't disparage him for that, and I could see how unless you were familiar with Eliezer talking about AI boxes it wouldn't be be obvious, but here I really shared his experience. I actually thought for a bit "is Eliezer practicing for a side career in fantasy writing?" I know a little about the anthropic principle though, so when the concept was referenced most of the pieces fell together in a very felicitous way. Maybe that's actually an overall better effect, having the whole thing hit you '"at once"?

By the way, though I was able to scrounge up the Knuth UpArrow notatation, if it's convenient could someone point me to something explaining the scariest thing imaginable? I've yet to realize the soul-gnawing horror of 3^^^^3 dust specks going into Eliezer's eye.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 03:19:50PM 1 point [-]

Click on the photo.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 31 July 2009 10:17:11AM 1 point [-]

The one world where the coin always flips heads.

Sucks to be them.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 August 2009 11:03:23AM 1 point [-]

Errr... no it doesn't? Heads means 'live'.

Comment author: JulianMorrison 02 August 2009 12:53:01AM 0 points [-]

Yes it does.

Flip? Two worlds.

N flips? 2**n worlds.

One world where it always flips heads. And every split, one of the two is thereafter forever disappointed. And quite possibly doomed, if too many assumptions are built on "heads". That world is a pain maker.

Comment author: wedrifid 02 August 2009 02:30:18AM *  2 points [-]

It sucks to be in any of the ~ 2**n worlds that are dead. This one is one that has defied the odds thus far and survived. Not only that, of all the worlds currently 'alive', this one is the one that went and summoned the guy that sounds like he's going to win once and for all. Sucks to be in the worlds that summoned Frodo.

In fact, once the dust is out of the way, they will have time to take a closer look at the immortal chick. That immortality should be reproducible.

Comment author: rkyeun 16 April 2014 04:09:55AM *  1 point [-]

Worlds where the hero wins, really truly wins, have no more Dust and need no more heroes. Worlds where the hero loses, and the Dust claims all, are no more. Only in worlds where the coin stands on edge does the cycle repeat.

Comment author: thomblake 31 July 2009 02:52:57PM -1 points [-]

Awesome. But was the LotR reference sufficient camp? Surely you wanted to link to TvTropes. It could at least have used a reference to Aeon Flux.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 20 September 2009 04:04:16AM 1 point [-]

Maybe the Dust is self-replicating thingies that can jump between worlds. Whatever tactic the last hero tried would have worked against the Dust in some Everett branches and failed in others. The Dust we see next would be something that survived the previous tactic.

Comment author: spriteless 02 August 2009 09:53:53PM 1 point [-]

I think this needs a bit more explanation to be readable to normal audiences. Now, not explaining the 'magic words' of our world right away isn't the problem. That, in fact, is a good way to make people think of ideas they have heard before anew.

The problem can be fixed by starting the story a few paragraphs earlier, with the council's exposition. A little exposition before hand is good for people who aren't used to fish out of water stories common to the genre. Everyone has a first right?

Comment author: Tiiba 31 July 2009 06:22:19AM *  1 point [-]

Am I right in my understanding that the Dust doen't actually evolve? That the old tricks don't work simply because the Counter-Force decides to use something else that day?

And what is the Dust?

Oh, A++ will read again.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 06:31:33AM 4 points [-]

I'm not sure what the Dust is, but it is learning. I named it after the scariest thing imaginable. I had in mind something as alien as natural selection, but not actually working that particular way, and with the singleminded focus of a paperclip maximizer.

Comment author: DonGeddis 31 July 2009 08:48:27PM 2 points [-]

"Dust" has been used in SF for nanotech before. And especially runaway nanotech, that is trying to disassemble everything, like a doomsday war weapon that got out of control. I recalled the paperclip maximizer too. Oh, and the Polity/Cormac SF books by Neal Asher, with Jain nodes (made by super AIs) that seem to have roughly the same objective.

Comment author: SilasBarta 31 July 2009 03:11:23PM 8 points [-]

When I was reading, I first thought the Dust was entropy:

"defeated only by luck" --> There's only an infinitesimal chance of beating the law of entropy.

"structureless and empty" --> Entropy is defined by its lack of order.

"Always the Dust is defeated, always it takes a new shape" --> Any destruction of entropy is counterbalanced by its increase somewhere else (e.g. life, control systems).

The "it takes a new shape immune to its last defeat" is a bit harder to explain, but I guess you could say it corresponds to, "you can't burn something twice".

The Counter-Force, then, is Bayescraft, or a "cognitive engine" -- any mechanism by which regularities in the world are identified, thereby creating more irregularity (see above).

And of course, how the hero says the world contains the seeds of its own destruction.

But then, that explanation started to make less sense as the hero seems to think he can permanently stop the expansion of entropy.

Comment author: Emily 31 July 2009 08:34:25PM 3 points [-]

This was my second thought. My first thought was that it was the Dust of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, which ceased to make sense extremely quickly! (Great series, by the way, if anyone hasn't read them. Don't be put off by the fact that they're kids' books. The third contains mountains of stuff that I imagine would sail over most kids' heads.)

Comment author: CronoDAS 01 August 2009 03:53:36AM 2 points [-]

An entropy-like force that acts as the main villain of the story isn't exactly unknown among fantasy literature. (For example, "The Nothing" in The Neverending Story, or "The Unmaker" in Orson Scott Card's Tales of Alvin Maker series.) However, unlike real entropy, fantasy novel villains generally can be defeated, even if the victory is ultimately temporary and comes at great cost.

Comment author: thomblake 31 July 2009 03:31:53PM 1 point [-]

Yes, I thought it was going the same way for a while.

Comment author: gwern 01 August 2009 08:11:20AM 0 points [-]

"Always the Dust is defeated, always it takes a new shape" --> Any destruction of entropy is counterbalanced by its increase somewhere else (e.g. life, control systems).

Dust, as is, strikes me as underspecified. It may take a shape immune to its last defeater, but nothing there prevents cycles - eg, I defeat it with A, it turns to B, I defeat it with C, it turns back to A...

Comment author: rwallace 31 July 2009 05:13:15AM 1 point [-]

Good story! The Tolkien reference was nicely done; is Aerhien's background your own invention or inspired by another source? I get the feeling I've seen it somewhere, though that could be merely a matter of having seen each ingredient separately.

My one quibble about the hero is that he deduces too much from too little data - in particular, the probability that the counterforce exists, is an exponential function of how many times the world has been saved so far; in his shoes I'd look at the records before making a call on that one.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 05:59:29AM 0 points [-]

Rick Cook's "Wizard's Bane" has Shiara the Silver; that was a neighbor that came to mind when I wrote Aerhien.

Also, even going on only the words Aerhien says out loud, it sounds like there've been a lot of lucky heroes.

Comment author: ChrisBrown 31 July 2009 01:42:23PM 2 points [-]

"Another said: a superhero is someone who can save people who could not be saved by any ordinary means; whether it is few people or many people, a superhero is someone who can save people who cannot be saved. "

This seems to be a reference to (or at least influenced by) Fate/Stay Night, correct?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 02:12:29PM 0 points [-]

Correct. (Direct reference, not influence.)

Comment author: thomblake 31 July 2009 03:04:06PM 1 point [-]

Ooh, is this "guess the reference"?

Look upon the Abyss without flinching

Neon Genesis Evangelion / Warhammer 40k fanfic?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 03:04:46PM 1 point [-]

But of course. I quoted that particular line in a "Rationality Quotes" a while back.

Comment author: RolfAndreassen 31 July 2009 04:39:40PM 1 point [-]

Out of curiosity, have you played the games, or did you just come across that particular quote and approve?

Comment author: CronoDAS 31 July 2009 06:44:17PM 0 points [-]

I was annoyed to discover the other day that none of the Type Moon games have official English releases. We've gotten the manga and anime adaptations, but not the visual novels. (There is a fan translation patch, but importing the Japanese game is not as easy as getting an official English version. And I'm not going to stoop to piracy to get it.)

Comment author: rwallace 31 July 2009 06:07:32AM 2 points [-]

Ah! Yes, I knew she reminded me of someone.

(To anyone who hasn't read the Wiz series: highly recommended.)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 06:23:47AM 0 points [-]

So you also associated to her specifically? I noticed the similarity while writing, but didn't think it would be noticeable while reading. Guess I was wrong. I'll rewrite slightly - if that's noticeable to others, it bothers me.

Comment author: rwallace 31 July 2009 06:31:03AM 2 points [-]

For what it's worth, I don't see any need to change it; archetypes echo down generations of storytellers because they work, and this character works very well as she is.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 31 July 2009 06:36:26AM 1 point [-]

I do see such a need, actually; I think that particular sector of description was influenced by Shiara, which means I got lazy for ten seconds and didn't do my own thinking, and was punished accordingly. So I changed the emphasis slightly, to what I think it might have been if I hadn't also thought of Shiara. I expect this sort of thing can be handled by changing one or two lines rather than a complete rewrite.

Comment author: rwallace 31 July 2009 06:48:08AM 0 points [-]

Fair enough, that's reasonable.

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 02 August 2009 02:21:16AM 0 points [-]

For what it's worth, I also thought of Shiara immediately when I read it last night, largely because of the "summoning an offworlder with mysterious knowledge" premise combined with the shared archtype and the "dead lover" bit.

Comment author: rwallace 31 July 2009 06:38:48AM 0 points [-]

And yes, "a lot of lucky heroes" is what I'm thinking - suppose there have been a thousand wins at 50-50 odds, that's about 300 decimal orders of magnitude, which makes it almost certain that the counterforce really does exist. If the number were less, that makes the anthropic explanation more likely. That's why I would check on the numbers before drawing the anthropic conclusion.

Comment author: Desrtopa 01 November 2010 03:33:35AM 0 points [-]

I wondered before I got to the end if it was supposed to be the anthropic principle they were dealing with, or if there was some less obvious answer. In the main character's place though, I don't think I would have assumed that solution. If there is a near infinite number of universes in which all possible outcomes are expressed, we should expect there to be some worlds with such contrived looking histories, but the implications of a method that could summon entities from one universe to another would be so absurd that I would tend to conclude that that was not what had actually happened.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 01 August 2009 01:48:13PM 0 points [-]

What's the difference between the Dust and entropy?

Whenever something new comes into existance, there are new ways of breaking possible. The space of entropic possibility is large, so even old things can occasionally break in new ways.

Less direct point: How can you tell how improbable/aesthetic your universe is?

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 31 July 2009 04:26:41PM 0 points [-]

Maybe you could collect all of the short stories you've posted into a book and publish it. I'm not sure if that would be good or bad for your reputation. It might make you seem less serious.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 31 July 2009 04:32:28PM 6 points [-]

"Sci-fi/fantasy writer Eliezer Yudkowsky says the intelligent machines could take over the world!"

Comment author: thomblake 31 July 2009 05:31:42PM 0 points [-]

Well Ben Goertzel's fiction work is kindof published, and it doesn't seem to make him look less serious.

Comment author: woozle 31 July 2009 02:03:06PM 0 points [-]

This reminds me of one of the "Probability Zero" short-shorts from Analog SF. I don't know if they're doing them anymore, but they did for awhile under the current editor.

Comment deleted 31 July 2009 06:25:24AM [-]
Comment author: E_Sayre 24 September 2009 06:39:00AM 0 points [-]

I apologize if someone already postulated this, but I saw the Counter-Force as something most equivalent to Quantum Suicide.

Or, essentially, it never existed in the first place - That there are many worlds where Aerhien and her compatriots or their equivalent exist, but just as in a Quantum Suicide you only wake up if the trigger isn't pulled, so do only the worlds that keep getting lucky survive.

Thus, this latest hero is keeping the big 'news' from being dropped - That the luck they've been depending on is just that, and they're a world which has kept on beating the odds over and over from sheer luck, and no external Counter-Force.

When I first read it, I was looking at it from a more traditional fantasy perspective, and I thought of one of Asimov's tales where someone tries to analyze just where jokes come from, the end conclusion being its aliens running an experiment on humanity, the realization of which results in the end of the experiment and the removal of all humor from the human psyche. Or, in other words, that the Counter-Force only operated so long as nobody fathomed its nature, and became somewhat 'resentful' when it was figured out.

I suppose I subscribe more to the former of the two interpretations, though I certainly wouldn't mind seeing it written up as a full-on tale. I'd like to see how our latest hero permanently defeats the Dust, or if he even does!

Comment author: E_Sayre 15 October 2009 08:16:16PM 0 points [-]

And now I realize that, in fact, this was what was being talked about the entire time, and sorting things by date rather than popularity helps immensely for that!

Comment author: thomblake 15 October 2009 08:29:23PM 0 points [-]

agreed - sorting by popularity is okay if you only read the first comment or two; otherwise, by date works much better.

Comment author: taw 31 July 2009 04:31:24PM 0 points [-]

Am I the only one disappointed by LotR references being way too easy for such a fiction-knowledgeable crowd as this one?