Thursday, June 7, 2018

A War Among The Stars

It is sad when people claiming to be fans of a property instead tear it apart. In the last 7 months, we have had two Star Wars movies. The first, The Force Awakens, was Episode 8 in the greater Star Wars Saga. The second, Solo: A Star Wars Story, took on the origin story for Han Solo. Both have caused great controversy.

The Force Awakens was written and directed by Rian Johnson and he put pen to paper (or whatever process he uses) during the post production phase of The Force Awakens. He took the story and where each character was left at and crafted a story to carry them further and see them grow to prepare them for the final installment. Between when he wrote it and when it came out, fans went nuts with theories and ideas. Even myself. And when The Force Awakens delivered something different, some called it the worst Star Wars movie ever made. In reality it just didn't fit what they had imagined the next chapter to be. Many cited Luke as the big issue. But Rian Johnson showed genius in tapping into that whiny farm boy from A New Hope in how Luke ended up in self imposed exile on this tiny island on a remote world. The thing is, George Lucas put him there and J.J. Abrams left him there for the first movie leaving it to Rian Johnson to pick up the story. Luke wants to be the hero, but what happens when the hero becomes that greatest threat to the galaxy. That is where Luke is at when the story picks up. It takes both Rey and Yoda to wake him up.

And worse yet, some did not like the new character of Rose. While story wise she is exactly what Finn needed to get him in the right place to be the hero the finale of this saga needs, some pick on her and the actress who played her because they think she did something wrong. Some of it I'm sure is her race and gender. That has become a real problem lately. But most of it is just rude fans. The same thing happened to Jake Lloyd. Neither one is being treated fairly. Any perceived flaws in the movie are not the fault of the actors. If you truly love the Star Wars franchise, respect the actors and their work even if you don't like the character they create. Ultimately the flaws of any movie lie with the director.

For Solo, the issues are different. Han Solo has a long history of his own spin-off stories. Yet some thought this was not grand enough for him. Not exciting enough. Too full of call backs to other areas of the Star Wars universe. Yet everything smoothly tied in to craft a story that was true to the character and in keeping with the spirit of those spin-off stories. The production was troubled with the Directors fired near the end of filming. Reports are that 70% of the film was reshot. Considering what we got was vintage Han Solo, I'd say they did the right thing, but the Box Office is not what was expected and there may be fallout for that. But had the original directors had their way, they were trying for a comedy and that would have flopped big time and the fans would have rebelled at such a beloved character being treated that way.

Instead we got two beautifully crafted stories that I feel time will treat well and will become beloved pieces of the franchise. I think in time people will come to love The Last Jedi as they did The Empire Strikes Back (at the time considered the worst of the original trilogy and now considered the best). I don't think any movies in the franchise will ever compare to the original three, but what is being produced today is quality work that will stand the test of time.

So lets be civil and not treat each other or the cast badly. Let's rise above this and follow the lead of our departed princess and respect each other even if we don't agree. Let's put this war among the stars to bed and be a community.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Discovery vs. Orville - which trek to take

This television season has brought us two new series. They are very different.

I came late to Star Trek fandom, but when I arrived, I arrived big time. I would say the first inkling of my fandom came with Star Trek: The Motion Picture (the Enterprise cutaway poster hung on my wall for years), but it didn't reach full force until we moved and I had daily reruns of the original series. I also found conventions. I was always big on the tech side and the story side. My first ever completed story was Star Trek related and I lived for plans, blueprints, and technical manuals.

When they announced Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was excited. New stories in series format. I was not disappointed. The series got better and better until they split the writing team to start Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Babylon 5 also started at about the same time. It is really telling that I could ignore some of the lower production values of Babylon 5 in favor of its superior writing. Also telling were how many classic Star Trek writers who wandered over to that series. I finally gave up on Deep Space Nine and Voyager when Trials and Tibbleations aired. I found it sad that the best episode of Deep Space Nine was one that revisited a classic story. They had fallen that far. Even the movies made about that time were lacking. I liked them, but they did not sing like some of the original cast movies. And I still remember Patrick Stewart praising the series finale and being more cautious about commenting on Generations.

So we come to 2017. Star Trek is 51, The Next Generation is 30. Babylon 5 is 24. New on TV is Star Trek Discovery and The Orville. Being a fan of Star Trek for more than 35 years, and being a writer myself, I am aware of what made Star Trek great. Some give sole claim to Gene Roddenberry, but without NBC's input, his creation would not have been nearly so successful. They were right, they public wanted action. The turned down his original pilot, The Cage, and when he made the first movie, he again returned to that format and while it was a hit in its day, that film pales next to the others. Don't get me wrong, I think it is a great film and the story is far better than many in the original series or even the later series, but it fails to capture both aspects of what is Star Trek.

The good movies manage to capture both. Gene wanted a Utopian future where we had gotten past money, bigotry, petty squabbles, etc. NBC wanted action adventure. Put them together and you have success. Gene's vision alone is too cerebral. NBC's vision is just your average science fiction. When J.J. Abrams came in to do the new Star Trek movies, he got the cast right and then failed three times on the writing. All three of those movies are NBC's vision only. Nothing of Gene's vision can be found. When you look at Star Trek Discovery, that is what you find. And the worst part is they claim to have returned to the original timeline while at the same time rewriting things like they were doing a reboot. On the other hand, The Orville is a reboot that manages to capture both Gene's vision and NBC's action adventure to create the closest thing to Star Trek in years. And it manages to do it with some humor thrown in.

So if you are a fan of Star Trek as Gene Roddenberry, Gene Coon, Robert Justman, Nicholas Meyer, or Rick Berman made it, then you need to watch The Orville. If you like the J.J. Abrams films, watch Star Trek Discovery. Discovery is good science fiction and a nice reboot of Trek in an action adventure sense, but The Orville is the trek you are looking for, hitting deep issues and currently relevant questions in the way Star Trek should.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Comparative Technology

I feel the need to be nerdier than usual.

A video on YouTube has sparked a topic that I think about from time to time. Many fans wonder, seriously or in jest, how the technology of various science fiction universes compares. I thought I might delve into four of my favorites. Oh, and when it comes to who would win, the answer is always the Doctor. But technology is a different matter.

I'll tackle Star Trek first. They set out from the beginning to have a higher level of technology so you have phasers and photon torpedoes for weapons. The ships carry a variety of deflector and shield systems designed to go from avoiding space debris to protecting from weapons. This elevates the level of damage these weapons can do to a different level.

Then came Star Wars. While Lucas refers to lasers and laser swords, in universe they are rarely referred to in that way. Also, the effects do not correspond to the way lasers works leading me to have a different explanation. The weapons are called basters or turbo lasers and we can see the beam travel leading me to believe they are a plasma based weapon very similar in effect to a laser, but more powerful. We do get some description of deflectors and shields but don't really get to see much of them. There is also armor plating. What you do get is a sense that the larger ships are heavily built.

Battlestar Galactica (the original - the only one I've seen) basically copied Star Wars for the level of technology, omitting lightsabers. But basically the same effects as Star Wars and the same solid designs. Not surprising since Ralph MacQuarrie was behind the conceptual design of both. This places Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars on nearly equal footing.

Then there is Babylon 5. This gets more dicey because we aren't dealing with just one technology. There are really three levels. first you have the Earth Alliance. These are lower level weapons solidly built ships. Then you have the Centari, Narn, and Mimbari at the mid level. They are pretty equally matched in most ways and superior to the Earth Alliance. But they are inferior to the Vorlons and Shadows. They represent an entirely new level, one that has more firepower at their fingertips than anyone else.

When you start to pit these various technologies against each other you get some pretty varied results depending on who is doing it. My outlook is to take the level of damage into account and the size of the ships and the damage weapons do. Then I look for parallels. One parallel is the merchant ship at the start of Star Trek III and the Millennium Falcon. They are similar in size, both appear to land on planets. The Falcon has armor plating and deflectors. The other ship seems to have been caught with its guard down. The Klingon Bird of Prey destroys the ship with one volley of fire from its phaser-like weapons (often called disruptors but that name doesn't always seem to fit the effect). So, what would a Bird of Prey do to the Falcon? I think the results would be similar, but it would take more shots to cut through the armor plating. Now, in Star Wars we see the Falcon take a lot of hits on the deflectors and suffer no real damage (other than some overloaded systems) so if the deflectors were up, it would take the Klingon ship some work. But the Falcon's weapons are no match for the Bird of Prey's shields.

As I continue to put the pieces together, I come to realize that the Star Wars weapons are almost as powerful as the Star Trek ones. Similarly compatible to the Mimbari weapons from Babylon 5. So in terms of dealing out damage, they are all quite similar. But it is when you get to shields that things become more clear. The Star Wars ships seem to rely on ruggedness and armor rather than shields. Their shields are weaker than the Star Trek or Mimbari ones. And Battlestar Galactica doesn't seem to have any shields except around the bridge. So when it comes to damage they are almost all equal. But when it comes to the ability to sustain damage, they are not.

I would put the Earth Alliance as the weakest. They've got the spirit and tactics, but not the equipment. They need luck and skill to even hold their own with the others and a hell of a lot of both to beat them.

Then Battlestar Galactica. They have no defensive systems. Their capital ships have missiles that can blow the others away, but bringing them to bear would be difficult.

The Mimbari, Star Trek, and Star Wars all seem to be pretty equivalent. Star Trek ships have stronger shields, but they rely on those shields for most of their defense. The ships can't take much damage. the Star Wars ships are hearty and can take a pounding. The Mimbari seem to have the best technology and make use of fighters. That seems to be a key difference in Star Trek and Star Wars tactics. Star Trek lacks fighters. If those ships focus too much on the fighters they could put to much effort into the small targets and neglect he larger targets and lose the battle. All things considered, I think the Mimbari would come out on top.

But then there is something else to consider. The Death Star is an order of magnitude higher than the rest. But so are the Vorlons and Shadows. The Death Star can blow apart a planet, something the Vorlons and Shadows can't quite match. But the Death Star is easy to take out. Since the Vorlons and Shadows were loathe to act unless things became serious and really were only in the mood to fight each other, this pretty much negates any need to really consider them (they'd win if you did).

What it boils down to is what ships could take the pounding from the others and still dish it out. The Galactica took more hits than any Star Destroyer we witnessed so for capital ships, I'd vote her the winner for endurance. But Star Trek ships have pretty powerful weapons and advanced shields. Unless an enemy can take such a pounding and still dish it out, the Star Trek universe would have to win as the most powerful. It would be a tough battle between them and a fleet of Battlestars, but I think a TNG era Federation fleet would win. They are fast, maneuverable, with the firepower to do the job. The Battlestars and Baseships would have a hard time dealing out any damage, but they could take a huge amount and that might give them the time to get in shots to take down the Federation shields. After that the Federation ships wouldn't stand a chance, but I don't think it would go that far.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Black Holes Aren't All That Complicated

Seriously, they aren't. Some physicists make them out to be these incredible things, but really they are just hugely massive gravitational bodies and they act in very predictable ways. The recent detection of Gravitational Waves and what they detected just proves my point.

There is this big question among those who study black holes as to what happens when matter is sucked in. Some say it is destroyed and some say it cannot be destroyed because of the law of conservation of information. Well, both points are ridiculous and pointless. Might as well talk about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Why do I say this? Well, the mass. When matter gets sucked into a black hole, the black hole gains mass. Not all matter may get sucked in, some may get converted to energy and some may be flung away before it enters the event horizon.

One scientist was so desperate to prove that information was not lost that they resorted to measuring the surface area of the black hole, noting, much as the known increase in mass, that the size also increases and so the surface area goes up. Sometimes I think these specialists scientists get too focused on the minutiae and forget to let logic and reason in.

Okay, so what proof do I have. Well, the math. Now, I'm not going to put down how all this is calculated, or even what the precise final equations are that can be compared. For one it is hard to do in a blog. Another, either you are a physicist and can look them up or you aren't and they wouldn't make sense to you even if you saw them. Michio Kaku covered it well in his book Hyperspace. But anyway, I digress. When you calculate what a black hole should look like you get a strange result. It doesn't make a lot of sense even if you are an expert. Interestingly enough, you get a very similar result when you do the same calculations for the big bang singularity.

So what does this mean. Well, that depends all on the theory of the Big Bang you follow. I find string theory compelling. The added dimensions make a lot of sense. When you look at it that way, in the moments after the big bang, new dimensions come into being and matter is created from those dimensions. Generally it is described as the vibration of a string, which is why they call it string theory. But the crux of the idea is the the change in the dimensional nature of the universe leads to the creation of matter, first at the quantum level, then at the atomic level. From the nature of the math results, I have concluded that the process inside a black hole is so similar to the conditions during the big bang, just moving in the opposite direction, that the dimensions get crushed. This answers the conservation of information conundrum because it means that a state that started with the Big Bang is being reversed on a small scale. Yes that means matter would cease to exist, but not the dimensions and vibrations that created it in the first place. It is hardly different than the observable states of matter - gas, liquid, and solid and the change between them. It is just a more fundamental change under conditions that are hard for us to comprehend. The temperatures and pressures within a black hole are extreme.

As a result, black holes become quite easy to understand. They are just mini-reverse-big-bangs. Nothing hard to comprehend and nothing that requires a great mind to figure out. Black holes are not gateways to other places, they are just huge chunks of matter that gobble up any matter that gets too close. They convert matter back into its constituent components and grow in mass and in the diameter of their event horizon. Now, as a gravitational body off extreme size there are bound to be some interesting things going that could produce some of the interesting tales SF authors have proposed, but the only thing you'll get by crossing the event horizon is absorbed into the black hole and your matter converted into a higher state.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Is Science Fiction Dead? or Merely Asleep

Some have lamented the death of Science Fiction. The great pioneers of the 30's and 40's predicted a lot of things that are now a part of our daily lives. The visions of the future have largely come to pass, with the exception of space exploration which we now know will take longer than any of those early visionaries thought. There also seems to a trend to stick to the facts and not really push the boundaries of technology when telling a story (this has traditionally been called Hard Science Fiction).

So, is Science Fiction dead? Well, that depends on the fans and the writers. For some it may well be, but those people lack imagination. They tend to be fans of Hard Science Fiction and eschew the softer, and previously greatly popular, side of the genre. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for Hard Science Fiction, but let's face it, that is not where Science Fiction came from. It may be hard to grasp when you go back today and read the works of the Golden Age that most of that stuff was not even considered possible. Today it seems like they knew what they were talking about. Heinlein's description of zero gravity in Orphans of the Sky was frighteningly accurate and written decades before anyone had experienced it. Traveling to the moon, much less another planet, was so far fetched in the world that read the Golden Age books that it could not be considered anything but Soft Science Fiction. The Golden Age was full of dreams of the future that few thought would actually come to pass.

But today, with so many of those inventions of the imagination a reality and some of the dreams pushed further into the future, it must seem like the genre is dead. But it isn't. We have just forgotten to dream. One set of dreams came true and we need to find new ones. There are still many possibilities out there, we just need to dream them up and write about them. Science has advanced so far that some feel that we know too much and there is no room left for dreams, but we still do not have humaniform robots, we still don't have space colonies, theories concerning faster than light travel have advanced taking relativity into account, science has investigated the transporter, and then there are the many social issues that we have yet to deal with. We are not where we could be and it is up to Science Fiction to show us where we can still go. To do that, we need to dream. We can't stick to the facts of Hard Science Fiction, we have to push the boundaries and question what can and can't be done. If we don't question our understanding of things as they did in the Golden Age, it leaves no room for imagination. We are only limited by our imagination and if we reign that in, we have no place to go.

While I greatly respect the efforts of the Hard Science Fiction community, they do not represent true Science Fiction. The heart of the Genre is imagining the impossible possible and that goes against the very nature of Hard Science Fiction, but it lies at the core of all Golden Age stories. We need to dream and dream big. We need to write stories that inspire the imagination and let young readers dream big. For only by dreaming big and being inspired to discover what is possible do we get that gleaming core of scientists who take the stories they grew up with and make them reality. Science Fiction writers need to get back to dreaming big so that the inspiration of our imagination can inspire the science of a new generation. That is what Science Fiction really is. And I'd have to say that if we can't find that voice of dreams again, that the genre might be truly dead. But I don't think it is. I dream and aspire to inspire and I know others writers do as well.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Doctor Who Series 9 - 2015

My silence does not mean I have not been watching. I have, but this season has been a little tough to review on an episode by episode posting. Now that the season is complete I feel I am ready to comment.

This series returned to giving us 6 stories, the common number for a great many years of the Classic Era. There are 4 two parters, a one parter, and a three parter. The stories have been amazing. After what Clara has been through, she is now the ideal companion for the Doctor. She is as daring as he is and isn't afraid to make some of the same tough choices he often makes. In that end that does her in, but it makes for some great story telling along the way.

The first story features Daleks. The Magician's Apprentice/The Witches Familiar sees the Doctor run off, leaving his last will and testament (the Galifreyan version) for Missy. The first episode ends with the audience thinking Clara is dead. But then it the second episodes goes on to tell us that the way she survived is the same as how Missy survived the Cyberman in last season's finale. It was nice seeing the old Daleks along side the newer ones. I believe the "classic" Daleks were from An Adventure in Space and Time, but there was also an appearance of the Special Weapons Dalek from back in the Classic Era.

The second story, Under the Lake/Before the Flood, is a spooky tale of ghosts. It also ends with death, this time the Doctor. But in the end that turns out to be a technological trick. The story telling in multiple times makes it a very fascinating story and the action and real seeming danger keeps you on edge to the end.

The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived is almost not a two parter but more of two companion stories. In the first, we meet Ashildr and her village, beset by aliens. They are defeated, but Ashildr is killed. But, the aliens have been so kind as to bring along some advanced medical technology that the Doctor uses. He ends up making Ashildr immortal. In the second episode we catch up with her in the 17th century where we find that she has had great sadness, but also great success. Her memory is not equal to the task of so many years so she has kept a journal. Clara isn't in the second episode so she doesn't get to see what Ashildr has become. She is now hard. The Doctor manages to break her shell, but not quite like he hoped. She takes it as her mission to protect the people of Earth from the Doctor, the self proclaimed protector of the Earth.

The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion finally, after a series and a half, picks up the story from the 50th anniversary. The Zygons are living among us in peace, but one faction of Zygons threatens that peace. The Doctor, Clara, Kate Stewart, and Osgood (which one we never know, but probably the Human one... the original) strive to quell the faction and restore peace. Much as in the previous story where the Doctor showed Ashildr her heart, he makes the leader of the Zygon oppositon see the reality. The leader finds a new purpose by taking on the role of the second Osgood, so again we will not know who is who and the peace will continue.

Sleep No More is an instant classic story of adventures in space and time. In the not so distant future they have found a way to compress our sleep into just a few minutes to make our lives more productive, A scientist has been working to push that even further with terrible consequences. The Doctor wins the day, but there is a very real danger left hanging that that might not be the end of it.

Like the third story, the last story is really three companion stories. Face the Raven/Heaven Sent/Hell Bent chronicles the Doctor losing Clara. In the first installment, we meet up again with a character from last season who has a unique issue - a tattoo that is counting down. They find a hidden street in London and that the young man is accused of murder. Because he is a new father, Clara cannot let him die so when she learns that if the person under sentence and someone else mutually agree, the "tattoo" can be transferred so Clara takes it. Ashildr is back and she is in charge on this hidden street. She has setup strict rules to hold the peace. But it turns out that this case was just a trap for the Doctor, but because Clara took the "tattoo", her fate is now out of Ashildr's hands. Clara is killed and the Doctor gets sent somewhere. In the second installment, the Doctor is alone, completely alone, in a strange castle that is designed to imprison him and extract knowledge from him. He finds a wall that is made of a substance several times harder than diamond and clues. In a nearly never ending cycle he steps out of the transmat, races through the castle, finds clues, only to every time end up at the wall, trying to break it down only to be found and killed by the wraith that hunts him. But Timelords don't die quickly. Each time he has enough life left to restart the process over again. Billions of years pass before he finally breaks through and finds himself on Galifrey. In the third installment, the Doctor returns to the barn we previously saw in Listen and The Day of the Doctor. On Galifrey, he has a reputation and after Lord President Rassilon (in a new regeneration - probably brought on by his defeat in The End of Time) tries to have him executed, it is obvious who holds the real power. The Doctor banishes the Lord President and the High Council and assumes the office of Lord President once more (referencing Doctors Four and Five). He then uses Timelord technology to pull Clara out of her time stream one heartbeat before her death. Then he tries to go on the run again, revealing how he managed to get in the position to steal a Tardis and learn a terrible secret that made him run from Galifrey. As he and Clara flee in another stolen Tardis (with the classic white interior and roundles from Hartnell's Tardis) we learn of the Hybrid, a being born of two races who will threaten to destroy Galifrey. The Doctor ran because he is the Hybrid - referencing that line from the 1996 movie where the Doctor claimed to be half human on his mother's side. There are several possible alternate explanations, but the Doctor does specifically say that he (implying alone) has become the Hybrid. His plan was to wipe Clara's mind and deposit her back in her old life, but Clara reverses the polarity with his sonic glasses. He doubts she can do it, but she did and his memory of Clara is wiped. She, with Ashildr, picks up the Doctor's Tardis and deposits the Doctor in Nevada where he meets her in the cafe we saw in The Impossible Astronaut. They talk but he has no memory of her. She leaves the room and enters a Tardis control room and the diner vanishes from around the Doctor and there is his own Tardis. Clara is off, bound to return to Galifrey to meet her end, but she will go the long way and Ashildr is along for the ride.

There is a lot packed in this finale and it really ties the entire series together. Death and various ways to cheat death are explored, culminating in the Timelords and a really unique way to do it that the Doctor and Clara abuse. Typical of his time with Clara, the she saved the Doctor again from himself. Once nice thing about Clara is that she could always turn up again. She went to Trenzalore and stepped into the Doctor's time stream and was splintered throughout time to help the doctor. I like the last advice she left him with - "Run you clever boy, Run. And be a Doctor."

What Kepler is Really Telling Us

A couple of days ago, NASA posted an interesting video on the APOD site. Science deals with direct discoveries and NASA's report of the Kepler exoplanet finds are just the straight finds without any link to the larger meaning. If you watch the video, it shows a bunch of the exoplanet system squeezed together with an overlay of our solar system and its planets with the distance of each planet to its star in scale. Give the nature of the Kepler observations and the length of time they have been doing it, there are a few conclusions to be drawn. First, it is only detecting exoplanets in systems where the planet passes in front of the star. That is going to be a fraction of the star systems out there. Second, few of the planets lie far from their parent star. The further planets will have orbits in many Earth years and Kepler hasn't been looking long enough to uncover any more distant planets, unless they just happen to pass in front of the star. Most of the planets detected so far have passed in front of their parent star multiple times, solidifying the results.

The end conclusion to draw from this is that Kepler isn't finding more than a fraction of the planets out there. This galaxy is teeming with planets yet awaiting discovery. Some of them in these very same systems. But even with the fraction so fare discovered, there have been plenty of discoveries to question our theories of planetary formation. Some break the rules. Who knows how many other oddities lie out there.

So for us writers, Kepler isn't limiting, it is freeing. We don't have to be limited to these "close to the star" finds or just to the star system Kepler has shown have planets. Ones that it can't see planets in just means the angle is wrong, not that there are no planets. Other methods of detecting planets will have to be discovered before we need to feel limitations from these discoveries.

The real wonder of Kepler is just how many planets that might support life it has found in such a small search area. And when extrapolate that to the Galaxy and the universe, it is astounding.