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.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Down Eros, Up Mars!

When Sad Puppies (later joined by Rabid Puppies) hijacked the Hugo Awards and declared war on the organic nomination process of the world's most prestigious literary award for the science fiction and fantasy genres, did they really expect to be welcomed and accepted and for the rest of us to not fight back? Who knows.

But the results are in and the Puppies have lost. (Results) The only categories where their selections were not below No Award were in the Dramatic Presentation categories. Those were also the only categories where they didn't put forward some of their own. The only Puppy winner was Guardians of the Galaxy, and let's face it, that was a damn good movie.

So, those of us who champion diversity and quality have pronounced the puppies defeated this year. But wait, when you read what they have to say, they won. How is that? Well, they are deluded. They put forward a slate of candidates and the voters said no. Both sides got out the vote and when it was all tabulated, they lost. Yet they claim victory because of the use of No Award, yet that is the very mechanism of their defeat. This sounds so familiar. It is like the Confederacy or Nazi Germany where the stragglers and misfits of the losing side cling to the dream of a rematch and eventual victory.

The Puppies will be back, that is for certain, but I seriously doubt that they will have this level of success again. They claimed that World Con did not represent fans and they fans came out to vote and the fans said that yes, World Con does represent them. The slates lost, organic nominations won.

But we who worked for this victory must not relax. We cannot prepare our own slates for next year or it means the Puppies have won. We must encourage readers to get out and put forward their favorites in the nomination process and then participate in the voting. Their voices must be heard. The only way to defeat the Puppies and save the Hugos is to spread the word and get people to participate.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

A Look At Space: 1999

Star Trek took us to the brink of interplanetary travel, going off the air just months before the July 20, 1969 moon landing. Star Wars would not premier for 8 years. During this time American only had one real heir to the SF throne, Space: 1999. It is definitely a heir to Star Trek, even sharing the same executive producer that Star Trek had in its third season, Fred Freiberger. Another tie to Star Trek was that both Leonard Nimoy and Martin Landau both worked on Mission: Impossible.

Space: 1999 lasted for two season, each with a different feel and some cast changes. The first season is far more cerebral, with very metaphysical stories. The second season is more action oriented with a lot more violence. Most of the cast remained the same, but several characters left to be replaced with new ones, most notably the science officer. In season one we have an older, reliable and cautious man. In the second, we have a bright, intelligent, shape changing, alien woman.

The stories are very good for the most part, but it is hard to compare this series with the great science fiction series like the Star Trek franchise, Babylon 5, Firefly, etc. It is definitely a product of its time. Nothing wrong with that. There was a lot of good entertainment in those years and Space: 1999 is among them.

I won't do a rundown of every episode. That is best left for my favorites. I enjoyed watching Space: 1999, but it did not become a favorite. It is good, but not quite up to my standards. I found it a bit lacking in several areas, mainly the types of stories they told. While at the same time the acting was stellar and the special effects were outstanding. While the character of the stories changed from the first season to the second, there is a uniquely Space: 1999 character to all the stories. I'd it is this character that is unique that doesn't really appeal to me. Just not my type of series. But has I been an SF fan when this series was on, I would certainly have watched it and enjoyed it. A very worthy fill in between Star Trek and Star Wars.

Being a fan of Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Star Wars, it was a lot of fun to watch this series. It was filmed in England for broadcast in the US. It was intended to be a British SF show, but the two principle characters were cast with American actors (Martin Landau and Barbara Bain). It had a nice mix of American and British influences and is definitely the jewel in the American TV SF crown of those days. This mixture ended up creating interesting parallels with Star Trek and Star Wars. You can see how Star Trek influence Space: 1999 and you can see how Space: 1999 influenced Star Wars. Oh, not in the sense of story or setting, but in the design aesthetic. The Moonbase Alpha sets feel like they could be a redress of some rebel outpost set. They all feel connected, like part of the same family. In many ways they are.

And the actors just add to that. I didn't take note of any major Star Trek guest star, but the number of people who appeared in Space: 1999 and either Star Wars or Doctor Who (or both) is amazing. Brian Blessed is a case in point. He appeared first in Space: 1999, then later in Doctor Who, and finally in Star Wars Episode 1. Red leader and gold leader both appeared toward the end of the second season.

I mark Space: 1999 as a pivotal classic of 70's science fiction. It filled in a gap, advanced ideas and technology, and is enjoyable and entertaining. A definite must watch if you haven't seen it. Even if you don't find it to be one of your favorites, it is good and a valuable use of your time.