Tag Archives: space colonization

Boba Fett Need Not Apply (review: Space Punk)

6 Jun

I’m not surprised that the denizens of C.E. Lange’s Space Punk universe have a glut of bounty hunters roaming the universe trawling for bad guys.  Science fiction in general has the same problem.

Look guys, we’ve all watched Firefly.  We know that the early years of space colonization are going to be violent and anarchic.  But does that have to mean that every other sf novel on the shelf has to feature a rugged individualist, borderline-alcoholic, womanizing bounty hunter with a ridiculous name?  I  mean, really folks, let’s think outside the box.  And the escapes!  It’s like that annoying person in the RPG who simply will not die.  Your hero is not that lucky.  Take a page from George R.R. Martin or China Mieville and maim your protagonists once in a while.

Easy for me to say, I know–I’m not a fiction writer, probably never will be, and spend my free time picking perfectly respectable fiction apart for kicks and giggles.  But I think I speak for the average reader when I say: if you’re going to write about bounty hunting, try to make it original… somehow.

And somehow, C.E. Lange does just that.  (See, I’m not so mean, am I?)  Zane Abraham has a ridiculous name; he drinks; he womanizes; he’s a stunner of a pilot; and he’s our first-person narrator.  It’s a recipe for obnoxious.  And yet, Lange shies just clear of cliche with a deft touch of characterization: Zane Abraham is a terrible bounty hunter.  He admits it in the first line of the book:

Bounty hunting wasn’t meant for me, but I did it anyway.

If I’m being completely honest, I did not expect to like this book (see above).  Bounty hunting just isn’t for me, but in this case, I liked it anyway.

What can I say–Zane’s failure is kind of endearing.

Our hero (if I can justifiably call him that) is both likable and relatable–half the battle when it comes to getting a reader to stick a novel through, especially when it’s first-person narration and you’ll have that character’s voice echoing in your head for a week or two.  But I don’t mind Zane’s voice.  Our protagonist is variously cynical, sarcastic, bitter and bored, and he too feels the creeping lethargy a tedious book can bring on:

Nothing exciting happened for at least a week. Five of those days I drank way too much beer and the other couple of days were spent recouping from my five day bender. It was during this cool down period that I tried to finish the stupid book Victor had forced me to read. I tried to get myself through the book while I was drinking, but those pages had to be read again once I was sober, and even then it was difficult to follow the translation. About half of the way through, one of the characters became so long-winded that I lost interest in the spoon-fed plot, and it was hard for me to keep the pages turning when there was just so much boring space to look at. That was sarcasm.

But his story is neither long-winded nor spoon-fed.  And his reactions to the action of the novel are sometimes so incongruous as to be absolutely hilarious:

After I pulled out my pistol and shot [her] in the head, I felt pretty good about myself.

Not about the fact that I had taken somebody’s life, but the fact that I was able to function at optimum efficiency during a situation where previously I would have panicked and stood frozen. Other than having a little bit of experience catching small-time crooks, I had never shot anybody in the head. I had fired a couple of shots at people, mostly at their legs, and hit most of them, but I had never outright shot to kill somebody with one shot. It was mostly luck, I can tell you that honestly, but I was glad I had spent so many hours at the range back on Seejen. I knew the guy who ran a shooting depot in town, and most of the time he let me shoot for free, as long as I brought my own ammo.

Like I said: endearing.

Final Verdict:

Space Punk is conventional in plot and structure, but interesting and likable characters save the day.  C.E. Lange’s writing–via Zane Abraham’s narration–is dryly funny with a down-home sort of feel.  There may be a glut of bounty hunters in fiction, but as far as I’m concerned, the top job’s already been filled by Lange’s perpetually astonished anti-hero.  Boba Fett need not apply.

Reading time: Don’t take my incredible ability to get off-schedule as a guide to how long this book will take you.  At 125 pages in print, it’s a fairly short novel.  2 weeks.

Availability: Space Punk can be purchased as an ebook on Amazon for $2.99.  I suggest, as always, trying a sample for Kindle before buying.

You might also like… Pale Boundaries by Scott Cleveland.  It’s the first indie novel I ever reviewed, and it still have a special place in my heart.  From Cleveland, you’ll get the hunted, not the hunter, but there’s something comparable in the writing style.  And that’s a good thing.

Attack of the Anthropologists (Retro SF Review #1)

19 Jan

Katherine MacLean is a fey young woman whose career is curiosity.

Even if it didn’t have the connotations it has today, “fey” is kind of a weird term to describe someone by.  The dictionary gives three definitions:

1. giving an impression of vague unworldliness

2. having supernatural powers of clairvoyance

3. fated to die at the point of death (Scottish)

These definitions make perfect sense when we’re talking about Eowyn calling Aragorn “fey” in The Return of the King, but none for a science fiction writer whose short stories aren’t paranormal romance, or whatever they’re calling it these days.  And while he story “Unhuman Sacrifice” in the anthology A Century of Science Fiction references God many times, it’s not because there’s spooky stuff going on down yonder planet–it’s because one of the characters is a crazy missionary trying to witness to an alien people who become convinced that he’s an evil spirit who lives inside the translator machine… and shouts at them.

But the rest of Damon Knights description of MacLean’s writing sounds right:

“Unhuman Sacrifice,” first published in Astounding in 1958, is a subtle interweaving of anthropology, social comment, depth psychology, irony, deadpan humor.  There are pointed comments here on good intentions, religious differences, the pursuit of happiness, and how not to interpret anthropological data …”

Note: This is a review about retro sci-fi, written in the retro Scattering style.  Meaning it’s scattered, rambling, and self-indulgent.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Oh, anthropology.  Dear, dear anthropology.  Do any of ye readers not know that the two groups of people I unswervingly despise are sopranos and anthropology majors?  I always thought it was because they have an elitist attitude toward historians, their methodology is ridiculous, and they are, frankly, second to none in obnoxiousity when students (second place: English majors who talk too much in class, but never actually get to a point, and all the while don’t wear shoes).  But maybe I loathe them because at a very young age, I read “Unhuman Sacrifice.”

When Revent (read Reverend) Winton comes to the planet–well we don’t really know the name of the planet–on engineers Charlie and Henderson’s ship, he is elated to find that the new found land has a native population he can witness too.  Pity he’s a terrible preacher–as Charlie and Henderson are sure, Winton was made a missionary to get him as far, far away from human beings as possible.  Charlie and Henderson, as well, threaten Winton with the disapproval of anthropologists were he to tamper with the natives.

“Revent, I appeal to you, tampering is dangerous.  Let us go back and report this planet, and let the government send a survey ship.  When the scientists arrive, if they find we have been tampering with the natives’ customs without waiting for advice, they will consider it a crime.  We will be notorious in scientific journals.  We’ll be considered responsible for any damage the natives sustain.”

The good Revent doesn’t really give a you-know-what.  God is on his side!  He annointed Winton with His Holy Seal of Faith to do His Mighty Purpose.  Or whatever.  The result is, as I’m sure you can guess, disaster.

But let’s stop with Henderson’s quote a few lines up.

Take a deep breath.

Am I reading this right, or am I reading this right?  There is a government-sponsored, Intergalactic Department of Anthropology?  A part of me cheers that academia hasn’t died; and a bigger part cries that they wouldn’t send historians.  John Lewis Gaddis in The Landscape of History speculates that, if multiple extraterrestrial intelligences were found, history would be more than a social science–it would be a natural science.  Natural sciences such as geology, paleontology, astronomy, and others, after all, are concerned with studying change over time–comparatively.  Historians study change over time in human behavior.  Once we get aliens: it’s comparative, and we move into the fancy new buildings on campus with the nice lecture halls.

Score!

But not in MacLean’s universe–in MacLean’s universe, it’s the anthropologists directing the search for and study of extraterrestrial life.  To their credit, it seems that they’re strictly opposed to interference.  I means, historians already know not to interfere with their subjects because they… kind of can’t.  But I’ll take what I can get.

The point of all this is that the fey Katherine MacLean composed a flawlessly-written story with a horrifyingly good twist ending, incorporating issues of religious hypocrisy and academic integrity all the while.  Oh, and did I mention the native population has a stage of life in which they turn into plants?  And that even the scientist visitors (Charlie and Henderson) completely misunderstand this and try to stop what they see as barbarity?

Funny, that sounds like another book I’ve read: Xenocide, by Orson Scott Card (third in the Ender series).  Let me give a brief summary of Xenocide:

Anthropologists control interaction with alien life forms.  A religious mission sets up on a planet with an indigenous population.  This population has a stage of life in which they turn into plants.  Scientific visitors completely misunderstand this and try to stop what they see as barbarity.

OSC does insert an interesting subplot about OCD, religion in a population of the seriously mentally-ill, discussions of genetic determinism, and an emergent superintelligence on the intergalactic Internet.  But the parallels between Xenocide and “Unhuman Sacrifice” are clear.  And when I look at Speaker for the Dead–something of a science fiction manifesto for the writing of history–I wonder if OSC didn’t meet some snotty anthropologists in his life too.  And I wonder, too, if Card read Astounding in his youth, and a particular story by a few young woman whose career was curiosity…


Now Reading: SEAMS16 A New Home

12 Jan

While I finish up Tag, I’ll be downloading Eric B. Thomasma’s first in a series, SEAMS16: A New Home:

Charlie and Susan Samplin make a new home for themselves on the finest repair depot in space. On the Space Equipment Authority’s Maintenance Station 16, Charlie discovers that he has a natural talent for the station’s favorite pastime, Zeegee, a zero gravity sport. He also finds satisfaction professionally when his skills as a technician are finally allowed to shine. Susan finds life on the station stimulating too, as she makes many new friends, including Station Director Sureenon and his wife, Penny.

But soon, a series of mysterious mishaps occur in seemingly unrelated systems, one of which results in the death of a co-worker.  Charlie suspects the one person he doesn’t get along with, but others disagree. The mishaps stop as mysteriously as they started-for a time-but when an old friend comes aboard they begin again, leading to the discovery of a device that can only be alien technology. But who brought it on board and why? Join Charlie and Susan as they work together with new friends and old to solve the mystery and discover A New Home.

That’s all fine and dandy, but my worry is that Charlie and Susan are going to get sucked out to space if they don’t seal up that airlock.  Space mechanics to the rescue!

Paradise Proximus (review: The Proximian, by Dennis Phillips)

3 Aug

When I was a kid, Aslan kind of freaked me out.  I’ve always had an unaccountable sympathy for Edmund Pevensie, who did the completely logical thing when confronted by an evil witch in an alien landscape: cooperate.  And when I learned from a fervent elementary school teacher one Easter that C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is really a thinly-veiled allegory for the death and resurrection of Jesus—well, that was a revelation akin to discovering that Santa Claus was really my mom shopping at Kids R Us.  Except this was infinitely more disturbing.  I’d been expecting the Santa-Parent parallel.

And that rather digressive paragraph stems from the déjà vu I felt reading Dennis Phillips’s June 2010 novel The Proximian.

The Proximian follows the journey of Carl Sage, a young man with an intellectual capacity that “makes Einstein look like a chimp” (as one colleague so eloquently put it).  Neural pathways “re-programmed” by an extraterrestrial signal broadcast over the television at the tender age of six, Carl discovers that his 21st birthday doesn’t just mean the legal right to drink and a high-powered research job at General Astro Dynamic.  With those gifts comes the power to engage in hypersleep, a telepathic dream state with Noyes, a native of a distant planet orbiting Proximus Centauri desperate to save his dying race.

No, I don’t mean species.

Until about page 80, Dennis Phillips did an astonishing job creating a near-future world as the setting of an alien contact story shaping up to be something akin to Carl Sagan’s classic 1985 Contact—and nothing less.  With the name Carl Sage for his scientist protagonist, I was immediately put in mind of the venerable astrophysicist and science popularizer.  Phillips’s technical descriptions of a massive radio telescope on the dark side of the moon didn’t hurt either.  An author who cites Arthur C. Clarke as an inspiration was doing a solid job with smooth prose, sound science, and an intriguing storyline.  Until page 84.

Ten years after publishing his science fiction masterpiece Contact, Carl Sagan published a nonfiction book as compelling as any prose I’ve ever read—The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.  A manifesto for science, rationality, and anti-mysticism, The Demon-Haunted World is truly what the back cover says it us: a “baloney-detection kit.”  Which is why, erroneously viewing Carl Sage as an Ellie Arroway avatar, I wasn’t expecting The Proximian to turn into a Christian allegory along the lines of another author with the initials C.S.

When Carl Sage goes into hypersleep at age 21, he communes with the Proximian Noyes, a man with a revelation:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… He created Adam and Eve.  He placed them in the Garden of Eden to test them, but Adam failed.  They ate the forbidden fruit…

Conventional idea.  But don’t worry—God, being prescient and all, had a back-up plan:

When he made man, he didn’t make just two of each.  He made millions and placed them all over the earth.

Noyes’s people lived on the continent known today as Antarctica (well, at least it wasn’t Atlantis).  And then came the flood.

“This is where Noah comes in?” Carl asked.

“Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.  Right you are, Buddy Boy!  Old Noah!”

“But you didn’t get on the boat, did you?”

“Nope.  We built a spaceship.”

And with the power of Faith to guide them, the Proximians-to-be found Proximus.  Now, however, they face the prospect of transformation into red-eyed devil-like monsters with gleaming teeth and slightly unpleasant personalities—when exposed to the light of the red dwarf star they orbit, naturally.  Carl’s job?  Build the spaceship Ambassador and travel the four and a half light years dividing their worlds in order to save Noyes’s “lost” brethren.

The problem I have with The Proximian isn’t the incorporation of Christianity—hey, I read C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy on my lunch breaks interning at the Ayn Rand Institute last summer—but rather the fact that a book described by the author as hard sci-fi  takes such a supernatural turn.  It seems incongruous, and my suspension of disbelief snapped at page 80.

I simply hadn’t seen it coming.

Now Reading: The Proximian, by Dennis Phillips

1 Aug

The classic definition of science fiction put by the good doctor Arthur C. Clarke goes something like this, as author Dennis Phillips comments on his website:

I remember reading one of Clarke’s introductions in which he was discussing the role of science in science fiction.  His thinking was that science fiction is about taking science—some scientific idea or concept—and projecting that into the future and asking the question, what if?

Much of what passes for science fiction nowadays, Clarke thought, was not really science fiction at all, but was more like a western in which, instead of being on horseback and shooting bows and arrows and six-shooters, the combatants flew spaceships firing lasers and photon torpedoes.  That concept clicked with me.

Well that rules out Firefly, doesn’t it?

I’m no purist when it comes to categories and classification of genres (let’s leave that to Linnaeus, shall we?), but when an author promises hard science fiction and provides sketches of his planet’s biosphere online, no less, it’s hard not to take that book out for a spin.  That book, today, is Dennis Phillips The Proximian.

From the book description:

On June 20, 2036, at Daedalus Air Force Base on the far side of the moon, the 500 foot radio telescope there has intercepted an alien signal of intelligent origin. It is Morse Code for the international distress call, SOS.

As the story opens, Carl Sage is exposed to that signal on his sixth birthday. This signal changes something inside his young brain, enabling him to communicate telepathically through dreams with the beings who created it. It also transforms him into the boy genius who will one day design the ship that will carry him and a crew of eighty colonists light years across space to save a dying race on the planet Proximus.

Having arrived 4,000 years earlier to escape the destruction of their own world, the Proximian people discover the red dwarf sun, Proxima Centauri (one of three suns there), is poison to them. They have built entire cities under ground to escape its menacing effect. Although they carry the cure, a horrifying danger awaits the arrival of the men of earth.

the Scattering will let you know how well The Proximian put the “science” in “science fiction.”  Of course, with a Contact-like premise and a boy hero named Carl Sage, I’d think that would be obvious.

The More Things Change… (review 1: Pale Boundaries)

6 Jul

The year 2709 sounds a long ways away.  But in Scott Cleveland’s science fiction thriller, space colonization and interplanetary crime syndicates don’t seem so alien when they’re populated by the highly realistic characters of Pale Boundaries.

Although the first couple chapters and their in-depth explanations of the social hierarchy and political landscape of planet Nivia struck me as a bit expository, the pace picked up considerably when the story turned from introductory stage-setting to a more character-driven plot.

Pale Boundaries’s hero (maybe antihero’s a better word) Terson Reilly arrives on Nivia a rough man from a rough planet—Nivia proves nothing like the dangerous bush of Algran Asta, where Reilly risked life and limb as a smuggler (four men die in the prologue, for goodness’s sake).  But while Algran Asta shaped his character and gave him heightened self-preservation instincts—he’s the consummate survivor—this foreign world he’s been exiled to turns all that upside down.  Poaching, after all, ranks somewhere between incest and murder on this hyper-environmentally-conscious planet.

Reilly as the rugged individualist dropped down into a disapproving society strikes an interesting note in the cultural climate of 2010 America.  Pale Boundaries is by no means a political manifesto (even if the law enforcement/environmental law enforcement officers on Nivia are called the EPEA), but there’s an interesting premise here: what happens when “civilization” comes head to head with basic human nature?  One of the best examples is the environment-protecting policy that drives not only Reilly but his probation officer Captain Bragg completely crazy: mandatory contraception, pregnancy-by-application, and strict population control.

The colonists of Nivia has made a prize of the most basic biological drive and began fighting for their children’s lives before they’ve even been conceived.  Terson knew, without a doubt, that somewhere in the room was a person willing to destroy a friendship, betray a spouse, and perhaps even plot murder if they believed it could get them a child.

It’s Reilly’s realism confronted by the “naïve realism” of Nivia—best represented by another strong, fleshed-out character: Terson’s wife Virene.

Though they meet at Captain Bragg’s office (Virene’s not quite squeaky clean herself), the pretty dark-haired barmaid affecting the posture of a rebel (favorite pastime: taking up four spaces in a parking lot for her sports car), Virene’s a Nivia girl at heart—just as Reilly chafes under the strictures of this highly-ordered society, Virene blushes furiously when Reilly jokingly calls her “my horny little poacher.”  Virene can’t quite adapt to her husband’s criminal tendencies, however attractive she finds the bad boy archetype.

“Their world was certain, stable and uncomplicated,” Reilly thinks, “A condition that ran completely counter to the environment of rugged self-reliance that produced Terson’s pessimistic realism.”

It’s kind of a commentary on the values of a complacent, comfortable American culture today versus that heroic image of the frontiersman who tamed the West.  When Reilly comments on the “environmentally zealotry of youth,” I can’t help picturing the Go Green! posters plastered around my University’s residence halls every move-in day.

But let’s get back to the heart of Pale Boundaries.

Cleveland crafts a number more believable characters with their own engaging storylines.  There’s Halsor Tennison, legacy boss of a powerful criminal organization on Nivia’s Beta Continent—a rougher place than Nirene’s tame Saint Anatone.  Hal’s a sharp, enterprising thirty-something whose “only regret was not accomplishing as much as his predecessors.”  For him, that means crime, counterfeiting, and general villainy.

Pale Boundaries, you might have gathered, isn’t just a ride to the future, but to the future’s underworld—the rebels, criminals, and disenfranchised.  Surprisingly, they’re all sympathetic.  (My favorite so far?  Cormack MacLeod, the Scottish space hobo whose scenes are a guaranteed laugh out loud, every time).

Hal might plot the overthrow of a rival or destroy scientific research labs via arson, but he’s a good foil for Reilly: Halsor Tennison isn’t the most patient man in the Nivia Prime sector, but he’s not about to go on a shooting spree in a fit of rage (for the record, Reilly’s rage is pretty damn justified at the part I’m thinking of).  With the uber-rational—not to mention beautiful—Lieutenant Dayuki by his side, Hal’s going to pursue his self-interest just as determinedly as Reilly, but with a lot more subtle scheming and a lot less visits to a probation officer.  His cool encounters with Dayuki are parsecs away from the passionate Reilly and Virene, but the characterization of the Beta continent criminals is no less realistic.  In fact, Dayuki might be the most fleshed-out character of them all.

Early descriptions of Nivian culture were a little heavy, true, but the complex relationship of the Family and their until-now submissive Minzoku allies.  The honor-obsessed world of Dayuki is revealed through dialogue and plot, not blocks of explanation—and it makes the Beta Continent chapters some of my absolute favorites.  The Minzoku have a history, a language, and a distinct way of life that Cleveland reveals slowly and subtlely.  But once again, it’s believable because it’s not too foreign.  A Japanese-founded colony on a new world that preserves continuity from the Pacific islands of ancient Earth is a ton more believable than the my-name-is-a-number futures of so many science fiction books.

So here I am at the halfway point, enjoying the characterization and sensing a tension build as the unrelated story threads of Reilly and Virene, Hal and Dayuki, even Cormack and a fellow baffle-rider (kind of like a train-hopping hobo… in space) slash snotty rich kid named Philip Sorenson begin to weave together.

But best of all is the fact that even as the determinism of an author’s pen draws them together, nothing feels contrived.  The cultures are realistic, and the characters are real–even in 2709.

Just goes to show–the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Review part 2 on the way.  Just as soon as I figure out why the hell Hal’s crazy ex-girlfriend Tamara just order a hit on… never mind.  On to chapter 12!

Now Reading: Pale Boundaries, by Scott Cleveland

4 Jul

Science fiction readers on the bleeding edge might want to check out an oft-overlooked source of new science fiction: indie or self-published authors.  This summer, I’m putting indie SF at the top of my reading list, and will keep the Scattering posted on thoughts and progress.

First up: Pale Boundaries (Jan 2010), by Washingtonian Scott Cleveland.

Pale Boundaries is available on Amazon Kindle for $0.99.  And here’s the product description:

Where do you go after you’re torn from the only planet you’ve ever called home? What do you do when your new home despises foreigners? Who do you blame when they kill someone you care about….and how do you take revenge?

Terson Reilly knew things would be different on Nivia. But he wasn’t prepared for the draconian environmental laws, harsh population control measures or the prejudice against outsiders-and they didn’t expect what he was willing to do to defend himself.

Terson finds love when he meets Virene, an independent young woman chafing under the strict social controls herself. The couple do their best to conform, but their rebellious streak leads them beyond the colony’s boundaries where their attempt to rescue the crew of a crashed spacecraft unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to expose not only Nivia’s dark secret, but that of a powerful criminal organization as well.

So now, dear reader, we’re at exactly the same part in the book: the back cover.  And now, off to chapter one…

God Emperor of Quantum Physics

7 May

The universe wants what the universe wants.

I think I started reading Frank Herbert’s Dune series sophomore year of high school—I’m pretty sure it was sophomore year because freshman year I was obsessed with Watership Down for some reason I can’t quite remember, but ended up using the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear as my senior yearbook quote (a decision I shall never regret).  So it was between year one and four, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t three as year three I was keeping a Word document of Algernon Charles Swinburne poems.

But that’s not really relevant.

What’s relevant is that next Tuesday the Scattering will one year old, and in celebration a return to the beginning is in order.

Shockingly, this blog does not derive it’s name from the scattered nature of my thoughts and the tangents that posts often go off on [see first paragraph].  “The Scattering” is actually a far-future event that takes place at the end of the fourth book in Frank Herbert’s famous series—God Emperor of Dune.  It’s a species-wide diaspora of sorts, with human beings spreading out across the universe after the (spoiler alert) murder of Leto Atreides II, half-human/half-sandworm dictator.

— begin tangent –

Whenever I hear Bozz Scaggs’s “Lido Shuffle” (and I hear it quite a bit when my iPod’s on shuffle), I subtly change the lyrics to pay tribute to said God Emperor’s death:

Leto (woah-oah), he’s for the money, he’s for the show—drowning in the Idaho-o-o-o-o.

— end tangent –

The Scattering was the ultimate end of Leto’s Golden Path, a prescient vision that turned into a guide for all the horrible choices he had to make in his 3,000+ year creepy hybrid life—the only path that would prevent the total destruction of homo sapiens sapiens.  Essentially, if humans scattered to the millions of planets and billions of stars, no force (not even themselves) could ever destroy them all.

And thus, Leto II saved humanity.

But the most interesting part of the series, for me, was Herbert’s idea that simply seeing the future made the future.  When Leto’s father Paul (a messiah himself, if not a god) had his visions, he was tormented by the terrible things he saw.  And yet, the very fact that he saw them predisposed him to follow the paths he’d glimpsed—for all he knew, the alternatives he was blind to could be worse.  But Paul couldn’t take the pressure, and left his son to choose the devil he knew.

But after watching the most recent episode of FlashForward (“Course Correction”), I’ve begun to wonder whether Herbert’s ideas weren’t entirely science fiction.

For those of you who aren’t watching ABC’s new series in the hopes that it can fill the void that LOST will leave in just a few weeks, FlashForward is a science fiction drama focused on an event known as The Blackout—a couple minutes of time when the whole world went unconscious, or rather: the whole world shifted consciousness and mentally traveled six months into the future.  Everyone glimpsed what would happen (or not happen—if they’d be dead) to them on a particular day in April, and everyone freaked out.  Free will versus destiny debates broke out everywhere, and philosophy professors all over the country saw a sudden spike in their research grants.  (Well that last part’s speculation, but I’m pretty sure ABC has it in backstory somewhere.)

Central to the mystery of the blackout are Simon Campos as Lloyd Simcoe, two quantum physicists whose experiments may or may not have had something to do with the world-changing event.  In any case, they’re experts now, making talk show appearances and working with the FBI.  And in “Course Correction,” Simcoe makes a particularly interesting statement about what happens when people see the future.  To avoid butchering science, I’ll leave explanation to the experts—

From a 1998 Science Daily article:

One of the most bizarre premises of quantum theory, which has long fascinated philosophers and physicists alike, states that by the very act of watching, the observer affects the observed reality.

In a study reported in the February 26 issue of Nature (Vol. 391, pp. 871-874), researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science have now conducted a highly controlled experiment demonstrating how a beam of electrons is affected by the act of being observed. The experiment revealed that the greater the amount of “watching,” the greater the observer’s influence on what actually takes place.

When a quantum “observer” is watching Quantum mechanics states that particles can also behave as waves. This can be true for electrons at the submicron level, i.e., at distances measuring less than one micron, or one thousandth of a millimeter. When behaving as waves, they can simultaneously pass through several openings in a barrier and then meet again at the other side of the barrier. This “meeting” is known as interference.

Strange as it may sound, interference can only occur when no one is watching. Once an observer begins to watch the particles going through the openings, the picture changes dramatically: if a particle can be seen going through one opening, then it’s clear it didn’t go through another. In other words, when under observation, electrons are being “forced” to behave like particles and not like waves. Thus the mere act of observation affects the experimental findings.

(today in 2010, this premise is generally accepted among the physics in-crowd)

And so, to oversimplify in every way: once you see something, you make it real.  Or as Lloyd Simcoe explained, the universe wants it to happen—and if you try to thwart your [fate], the universe will “course correct.”

This doesn’t only apply to the visions seen by all the poor denizens of FlashFoward world, but Paul and Leto of the Duniverse as well.

Paul Atreides saw the Golden Path, but found it too horrifying to comprehend—he didn’t find the idea of millennia of sandtrout cilia invading his privy organs terribly appealing.  By not following his vision, Paul should have changed the future, but the Duniverse course corrected through Leto.  From Children of Dune:

Already he could feel how far he’d drifted from something recognizably human. Seduced by the spice which he gulped from every trace he found, the membrane which covered him no longer was sandtrout, just as he was no longer human. Cilia had crept into his flesh, forming a new creature which would seek its own metamorphosis in the eons ahead. You saw this, father, and rejected it, he thought. It was a thing too terrible to face. Leto knew what was believed of his father, and why. Muad’Dib died of prescience. But Paul Atreides had passed from the universe of reality into the alam al-mythal while still alive, fleeing from this thing which his son had dared.

My advice: think twice before you let the spice flow.

Another Decade in Science Fiction

9 Jan

Last year (that’s 2009) cable’s foremost source for time travel, space travel, and scantily-clad aliens shocked fans with a controversial name change—from Sci-Fi to Syfy.  Personally, I like it.  The fandom needs to be shaken up (science fiction should never have an orthodoxy), and the uninitiated need to inch away from that viewer stereotype of bespectacled adolescent boys watching Star Trek in their basement.

And Star Trek, actually, is a great example of a show that’s always done a brilliant job focusing on the now and never nostalgia, often making the future look eerily like the best—and worst—aspects of the modern day.  Captain Kirk and crew of The Original Series (1966-69) tackled racism and sexism, for one, and The Next Generation’s Captain Picard’s battles with the terrifying Borg Collective aired during (you guessed it) the heat of the Cold War.

J. J. Abrams continued the tradition of taking the present to the future with a new Star Trek movie that put 2009’s international relations problems on the big screen, and an intergalactic scale.

Romulans and Vulcans, we learn, share a common cultural ancestry—but it’s hardly an amiable one, with black holes imploding home planets left and right.  (Young) Spock’s stoic observation that perhaps 10,000 Vulcans exist in all the universe, and the entire cultural history and traditions in a handful of elders, sounded chillingly like the story of the Jewish diaspora.  The fact that the warring humanoids are distant cousins only puts audiences more in mind of the current Arab-Israeli conflict.

That’s heavy lifting for a franchise popularly seen as somewhat cornball (although, I should add, there was one incident of Jim-Kirk-and-a-half-naked-bright-green-alien-girl action).

In any case, it’s a stereotype pretty successfully debunked: don’t let anyone tell you that science fiction is escapist.

Another excellent case story is Whedon, who you might know as creator of cult hit Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and spin-off series Angel (1999-2004).

Unfortunately for Whedon, his two attempts to bring sci-fi to FOX in the new millennium were shot down as fast as the USS Kelvin in a Romulan phaser-storm.  And Firefly, which generated a massive fan base after the series’ DVD release, barely even made it out of the loading dock.  Only 11 of the 14 episodes were actually aired on television, and those not even in the proper order—don’t ask.

Firefly demonstrated the “radical presentism” (quoting Cory Doctorow: always appropriate) that keeps science fiction relevant, and rather less fictitious than one might imagine.  In Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his motley crew, we find an assortment of war heroes and petty thieves dodging the all-seeing eye of a totalitarian—and universal—government.  Add roving cannibal marauders who wear their victims’ skin, and space begins to look like a pretty scary place.

Also a lot like our more terrestrial society.  Firefly shows us a future where a war for independence fails, and an all-encompassing government (however well-meaning) trades liberty for paternalism.  Premiering almost one year to the day after 9/11, Whedon’s message about liberty versus security was particular pointed—not to mention probably more effective than quoting Ben Franklin, whose aphorisms (however incisive) haven’t had so much punch since the periwig went out of fashion.

When 2005 brought the cancelled series new life as a feature film, Serenity, space’s frontier savages (“Reavers”) got further treatment, as well as a backstory involving genetic-engineering gone terribly, terribly wrong—another issue making headlines at the time.

The more recent Dollhouse picked up, thematically, where Serenity left off: the moral ambiguity of rapidly-advancing technology, particularly as it applies to the brain, memories, and identity.  Though tragically terminated, Dollhouse demonstrated, again, that science fiction can posit answers to modern questions (and raise more questions)—in this case perhaps surrounding the very contemporary fear that, when it comes to technology, what can be done will be done.

This may be bad in brainwashing human “dolls,” perhaps, but it’s definitely good for Whedon in the realm of production and dissemination of a more successful 2008 project: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. With Dr. Horrible, Whedon got his revenge on big networks and showed (in the middle of the WGA writers’ strike, no less) that current technology could make TV a little more personal while spreading science fiction to the masses.

If the title doesn’t hint at the venue, Dr. Horrible (featuring a singing and dancing Neil Patrick Harris and Firefly’s Nathan Fillion) was distributed exclusively online—and was named #15 in Time magazines Top 50 Inventions of 2008.  As for the theme—NPH’s Dr. Horrible desperately aspires to supervillain status (his love interest, by the way, runs a homeless shelter).  Is it too deep to suggest this is a protest against the impersonalization of a mass-produced, mass-consumer-oriented America?  Whedon’s rejection of the traditional format certainly is: there’s not much more democratic than an Internet release.

In the end, the “Ohs,” despite setbacks, continued to pull off what science fiction has been doing for decades: reflecting current concerns in what may look, at first glance, like an alien setting.  As for now—onward to the twenty-teens.

Conquering time and space with a Facebook app

28 Dec

This might surprise some people, but Farmville and Mafia Wars aren’t the only games on Facebook these days.

This winter break, I had the good fortune to visit with John Bergmans, a long-time friend of my aunt and uncle (Dr. John Bossard of Plasma Wind, by the way–see sidebar).  Along with being an engineer and entrepreneur, owner of Bergmans Mechatronics LLC, John Bergmans is also of late a Facebook app designer, the creator of the game EarthControl. According to the Facebook fan page:

EarthControl is a real-time, multi-player Facebook game in which players fly ships into space to pick up oil and bring it back to earth. Now includes sound effects and music, keyboard control, in-game chat support for Internet Explorer 7!

Here’s a short demo:

Bergmans describes the premise as a “cynical commentary” on our seemingly never-ending dependence on oil for energy; in his animated universe, oil barrels float around outside orbit and rival factions or space pirates can shoot your ship down with “plasma balls” to steal that precious black gold payload.

It’s surprisingly addictive—after a couple hours playing against some family members in a very intense competition filled with black looks shot across the room as we sat at our own laptops and opened fire on each other online, I was ranked 9th top player overall.  I do not intend to give up that position.  Ever.

Bergmans commented that working on the game put him in his own little world, and was pretty enjoyable.  But he seemed at no time more animated (pardon the pun) than when discussing the Kaazing Communications Gateway’s WebSockets, the web communication system that allows for real-time updates to the game.

WebSockets allows the game to “push data,” update the content without constantly pinging a server to resend data (in other words, no hitting the refresh button).  Earlier this month, EarthControl even hosted a transatlantic tournament, simultaneous with Peter Lubbers’s (of Kaazing Corp.) HTML5 Communication Systems seminar all the way across the pond, in London.

This is all the more impressive considering that every command sent to the game—shooting a plasma ball at my uncle’s ship to steal his payload, for example—gets routed through Bergman’s server in San Jose (that’s a pretty long way from England).  Even two months before the tournament, the technology was performing flawlessly at long distances.  Bergmans posted this on Facebook in early October:

I played the first-ever trans-Atlantic EarthControl game today with Peter Lubbers of Kaazing Corp. (Kaazing is the company which makes the WebSockets technology that enables web browsers to maintain continuous, real-time communications with servers.)

For this event, Peter was in Amsterdam, as part of a trip to Europe, while I was in Newport Beach, CA. Of particular significance is that, although the distance between Peter and the EarthControl server in San Jose, CA is about 5500 miles, Peter reported no apparent change in his ability to control his ship in real-time within the game. I noticed no difference either in my interactions with Peter from my location 340 miles south of San Jose. We were also able to easily carry on a conversation using the new in-game chat function of EarthControl.

This real-time, multi-player aspect is what makes EarthControl most fun—particular since the game has a Twitter account that tweets whenever a new player logs on (you’ll never have to play alone, and hey, that competitor could be halfway across the world).  Let the grudge matches begin.

So if you’re on Facebook and killing time (and let’s admit, that’s what Facebook’s all about), check out EarthControl: it’s a lot better than chasing lost cows.