Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A Word of Thanks

When I began writing this blog, I had no idea I would have enough to say on this topic to fill 100 entries, but as that day has now arrived, I find myself less and less inclined to say much more. Thus, I will include here an entry index sorted either by title of the work or topic of discussion to encourage visitors to browse through. And speaking of visitors, I must offer an anonymous thank you to you readers. I have come to find that even though we never meet, somehow you motivate us bloggers to keep putting in the extra effort to make it worth the read. I may move on to other topics in the future but shall leave this here for those who, like my Father who is no longer with us, have a love for science both in the real world and in the world of fiction.

If you see something in this list that you either like or hate, I invite you to click the link and leave a comment. I'm always interested. And if you're reading too Dad, thanks for the inspiration!

MOVIES
12 Monkeys (1995)
2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
2010 The Year We Make Contact (1984)
20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
5 Million Years to Earth (1967)
The Abyss (1989)
Aeon Flux (2005)
A.I. (2001)
Alien (1979)
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Animatrix (2003)
Avatar (2009)
The Battle of L.A. (2011)
Blade Runner (1982)
Buckaroo Bonzai (1984)
Buck Rogers (1979)
Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Close Encounters (1977)
Cocoon (1985)
Colossus - The Forbin Project (1970)
Contact (1997)
The Core (2003)
Cowboys and Aliens (2011)
Dark City (1998)
Dark Star (1974)
Deja Vu (2006)
District 9 (2009)
Dune (1984)
Enemy Mine (1985)
E.T. (1982)
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
The Fifth Element (1997)
First Men in the Moon (1964)
Flash Gordon (1980)
Forbidden Planet (1956)
Frequency (2000)
Gattaca (1997)
The Island (2005)
John Carter of Mars (2012)
Jurassic Park (1993)
The Last Starfighter (1984)
Logan's Run (1976)
The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003)
Minority Report (2002)
Moon (2009)
Next (2007)
One Million Years B.C. (1966)
Phase IV (1974)
The Philadelphia Experiment (1984)
Pitch Black (2000)
Planet of the Apes (1968)
Primer (2004)
Prometheus (2012)
Quatermass and The Pit (1967)
Screamers (1995)
Serenity (2005)
Silent Running (1972)
Source Code (2011)
Soylent Green (1973)
Sphere (1998)
Starman (1984)
Starship Troopers (1997)
Star Trek - The Movie (1979)
Star Trek II - The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III - The Search for Spock (1984)
Star Trek IV,V,VI (1986-1991)
Star Trek - Reboot (2009)
Star Wars Trilogy (1977-1983)
Surrogates (2009)
The Terminator (1984+)
Them (1954)
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
THX1138 (1971)
TimeCrimes (2007)
Timeline (2003)
The Time Machine (1960 & 2002)
Titan A.E. (2000)
Total Recall (1990)
Tron (1982)
Tron Legacy (2010)
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
War Games (1983)
War of the Worlds (1953)
Westworld (1973)


TELEVISION
Babylon 5 (Michael Straczynski)
The Clone Wars (George Lucas)
Clone Wars - Overlords (George Lucas)
Firefly (Joss Whedon)
Land of the Lost (Sid & Marty Krofft)
The Martian Chronicles (1979)
The Outer Limits
Star Trek (Gene Roddenberry)
Dr. Who

BOOKS
City (Clifford Simak)
Dune (Frank Herbert)
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
I, Robot (Isaac Asimov)
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury)
The Time Machine (H.G. Wells)
War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells)

CREATORS
Michael Crichton
Ray Harryhausen

TOPICS
Dystopian Films
Film Re-Mastering
Force Fields
Humanoid Aliens
Interstellar Travel
Invisibility Cloaks
Mind and Machine
Miniaturization
Sci Fi Pulp Fiction
Simulated Gravity
The Three Laws of Robotics
Teleportation Devices
What is Sci-Fi?

Something not in the list? It might be here.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Prometheus Has Landed

After finally going to see Ridley Scott's new movie about the post-constructed origins of his original classic, I have found myself pondering a new question: How does a science fiction author decide what to explain and what not to? We can look to the first Alien film for some excellent guidance. In that film, the origins of the alien creature and the ship that it was found in are never explained. This worked very well because the question was not really relevant to the plot and the mystery that it engendered added intrigue to the story, not frustration or confusion, and ultimately led to the making of Prometheus. An example of something that was explained in Alien is the reason the Nostromo was beckoned to the planet in the first place. That detail was central to the plot and was dramatically revealed at just the right point by Ian Holm's disembodied head. With these examples in front of us, what can we make of all the unexplained material in Prometheus? This film is by the same director and within the very same story arc, and yet it is riddled with illogical nonsense that attempts to get a pass simply for being unexplained!

=================[mild spoilers follow]=========================

But before I get into that, let me squarely lay out the best and worst aspects of the movie. The best elements were in the technical arena - acting, direction, and the stunning visuals which make the film enjoyable to watch. The credit lands squarely in director Scott's lap. The vast landscapes are obvious, but I particularly remember the final scenes of the crashing ship as being quite stunning. They must have had some help from CGI but it sure looked convincingly real. The worst element was hands down the completely unnecessary final scene. It was obviously an attempt to connect the story with the original Alien but it was poorly done, was in the wrong place in the film, and was overly gratuitous. It was so far from the subtlety you would expect from director Scott that I'm loathe to believe he approved of it. It also spoiled a perfectly good ending scene just before it. Anyway, if you are still reading and planning to see the film spoiler free, don't go any further.

=================[major spoilers below]=========================

Going back to the unexplained, lets look at the main thesis of the film. The opening scene of Prometheus seems to show the creation of life on a lifeless planet (presumably earth) when one of the "Engineers" (so named because alien is used for the creatures) distributes his DNA into the water cycle. The idea that either life itself or its molecular building blocks came to earth from somewhere else, and that this event jump started evolution, has been around at least a few centuries under the name panspermia, or more recently, exogenesis. It hung around even within scientific circles because to this day science has nothing that even comes close to a viable theory for the origin of life. I always found that amusing since the space seed theory doesn't explain life's origin either - it just places it somewhere else where it may have been met with better conditions... uh, right. Let's move on.

But the film doesn't even try to be scientific on this matter. First, there is clearly vegetation on the planet already when the Engineer arrives. If they did some terraforming in advance, then where did the DNA for the plants come from? It is made of the same molecules as animal life. Let us then assume that the deposited DNA is the seed that begins animal evolution. We find out later that the Engineer's DNA matches up almost perfectly with ours. If the evolution of life is based on random mutations (as believed today), then the chances the end product would match the DNA seed material is absolutely zero. If instead we are to believe the Engineers continually visited Earth to guide the process, then why would they need to seed it with their own DNA to begin with? How about this... the Engineer at the beginning looks exactly like the ones seen in 2089, but if the planet in the opening is earth, they would have been separated by roughly a billion years. Wouldn't the Engineers' race have evolved in that time too? If the opening represented a more recent event on another planet as an illustration, you have the same problem in reverse. They were doing the same exact thing a billion years ago? What an inconsistent mess!

There are lots of unexplained things that can be chalked up to the weirdness of alien fiction, like why the mother ship in the opening is different from the one at the end, the meaning of the mural on the ceiling of the armory chamber, or that big stone head bust which they use on all the movie posters. It may look cool, but it's just a random item in the film. On the other hand, there are also lots of unexplained things that look like oversights or just poor story telling. I've listed below some that struck me as I left the theater:
  • Ms. Vickers has a state of the art living quarters complete with a robotic medical chamber that performs automatic surgical procedures. We find out later at a critical point in the plot that it is only configured to operate on males. Why was it installed in her quarters again? Ok, we also find out it was meant for Weyland - but for him only? Did his own daughter approve this decision?
  • David reports that he has been studying the origins of human language to its common roots and thus believes somehow that he can communicate with the Engineers. When the opportunity comes to do so, the Engineer responds to his query by going on a rampage. No communication ever takes place, an element that might have added some interest to the story. Instead, we don't even know what question was asked.
  • One of my few complaints about the original Alien is how the creature grew so fast without consuming food. At least that was off screen and took a few days. In one scene in this film, the creature in the operating chamber grows rapidly before our eyes in a matter of seconds. That's just not biologically possible even for an alien.
  • If the planet they landed on was not the Engineers' home planet, but instead a laboratory for military experimentation, why would its location show up on ancient cave paintings around the world? The Engineers did not seem to have any good reason to reveal such information to their experimental subjects.
  • If David's goal was to capture the alien offspring in cryogenic stasis, why didn't he just keep Dr. Shaw sedated? Instead he lets her awaken and tells her she's pregnant? He seemed so much more cunning in other scenes.
  • I was reminded of this one on another review site - David finds some green goo on the wall when they first enter the caves. That usually means some dangerous creature is lurking around. It is never explained and never appears again, and it turns out there is nothing living in the cave system when they first arrive.
  • Before David effectively poisons Holloway, he asks him "How far would you be willing to go to find your answer?". When Holloway answers that he would do anything, this supposedly gives David a justification for his action. Since David is a robot, why does he need justification? He does not seek justification for other unethical actions in the film. But even if he was programmed to seek it, Holloway's answer does not logically provide it! The answer assumes willing participation. David gave Holloway no choice in the matter. A human might make such an erroneous transfer, but not a robot driven by logic.
One of the more interesting characters in the film was the android David. As I witnessed the completely unethical methods he used to achieve his master's goals, including outright deception, it reminded me of the rationale behind Asimov's laws of robotics. David certainly broke the first law by performing a fatal experiment on Holloway. In a world where robots have no constraints on their behavior, wouldn't it be impossible for humans to trust them?

The final oddity I have to mention is that for a prequel, there really isn't much connection to the actual events in Alien. Even though the Engineer's ship crashes in the end, we know it is not the ship found by the Nostromo because, among other things, the pilot leaves his cockpit. Indeed, I have read that the planet they visit is not even the same one as in the original. It almost seems like a smooth connection had been thought out but the script was changed at the last minute. In fact, most of my complaints are with the script, and I hear the re-work was done by Damon Lindelof, one of the writers for the Lost TV series. I would conclude he is probably the wrong person to be writing science fiction. Look at all the unexplained stuff he left over at the end of Lost, and it got those fans upset about it too. I wouldn't be paying it much attention if this film had not represented such a historic opportunity, one that I'm sure will not come around again.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Now You See Me...

If I had to name one technology from science fiction that I would love to see turned into reality, it would be the invisibility cloak. The most famous examples that I can think of are the wrist devices used by the Predator aliens and the cloaking devices used by the Romulans in Star Trek. It's kind of interesting that both literary examples put the technology in the hands of the enemy. Maybe that's because we Americans consider hiding behind a cloak as a cowardly fighting tactic. But in the real U.S. military, I'm certain governments have spent millions on the problem. Partial solutions have been implemented in the past. Submarines, for example, were invented for this very reason. Smart missiles designed to fly below radar while navigating local terrain and stealth fighter planes that directly avoid radar detection. The fact that complete invisibility has never been achieved illustrates the near impossible ubiquity that such an invisibility cloak presents.

A while back Mercedes came out with a fuel cell powered vehicle and decided to promote the concept by creating an invisible car. They draped LED mats on one side of a B-class hatchback and put a camera on the other side, then hooked them together so the camera image could be transmitted live to the LED array on the other side. The end result can be seen in the promotional video below:


I show this to illustrate at least one way to approach a cloaking technology. Absorb the incident light and then re-transmit it on the opposite side in all directions. The reason it doesn't quite work is that light doesn't just pass through an object through its center - it comes at it from every possible angle. As can be seen in the Mercedes clip, the invisible car effect only works in one direction and from a specific distance away, and it requires objects on the camera side to be sufficiently far away. To accomplish the real effect, an object would need to be covered with tiny cameras, each of which could capture video in every direction. It would also be covered with tiny projectors, each of which could transmit (different) video in every direction. All these would need to be connected to a network backbone so that every camera could send real time data to every projector. Even if this mesh of physical equipment could be brought down to nanotech scales, the wiring and bandwidth requirements would render it physically unworkable.

Most of the real research today in cloaking centers around a technique that deflects the path of light around an object. This is usually accomplished with new types of composite materials that can produce negative refraction. So far it's only been done either on a microscopic scale or only in one direction. For larger objects, the problems described above don't go away. Think of it this way - even if you wanted to hide a perfect sphere, there is still a beam of photons traveling between every two points on the sphere in both directions. It is unlikely that any system of angle deflection could handle such a complex problem. I say unlikely only because our understanding of the physics of negative refraction is so new that I can't rule out some new discovery that might actually do the trick. I just wouldn't put money on it.

There is one final method of achieving invisibility, which is to somehow allow the light to pass right through the object, rendering it temporarily transparent. If I were writing a story that required a cloaking device, this is the method I would choose to play with. Could you alter the matter to prevent its interaction with light? Even better, could you transfer the visible spectrum to another medium that does not interact with matter? Neutrinos pass through anything, but they are hard little buggers to harness. If you want to just cloak a human being, modulating the light down to the RF range would allow it to pass right through and then be modulated back again on the other side, but the loss in directional focus might kill that idea. What about ultrasound? I've heard there are ways to focus sound waves down to the microscopic range. The problem is that it bounces off every density change in your body. No matter what you do, the directional topology problem is still there, but at least direct transfer gets the information to its target location and puts it slightly closer to the realm of possibility.


The writers of Star Trek never really tried to explain how a cloaking device actually worked, and that's generally the way it goes in most of the sci-fi that I've encountered so far. It would be neat to see more attempts at explaining to readers how an invisibility cloak could plausibly become a reality.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Prometheus Rising

Waiting for Ridley Scott's new Alien prequel has been a very unique experience for me. Having experienced the original Alien as a teenager, and recognizing that it achieved classic status apart from all the successors that followed, there is a certain giddiness about the fact that Scott is returning to the franchise. At the same time, being an adult, I don't want to raise my expectations unreasonably high and then be sorely disappointed. For example, when the first trailers appeared it was very exciting because you could tell at least the look of the film would be good, and that is not surprising given this particular director's strengths. But as more trailers followed, I began to worry that the story would be too simplistic and that they were revealing too much of it too soon. After all, it was the script that contributed to the first film's success just as much as the direction, and the writing crew is a new team with a generation of legacy to deal with.

This push and pull continued even as the marketing tool of the new millennium, the viral video, was utilized by the promoters of the film. The setting of the first clip, a future TED conference in 2023, was a really great idea, and it showed there was some thought put into the pre-history of the prequel itself, but the content of the speech was overdramatized and Guy Pearce's execution was poor.

Then everything changed when the second viral video made its full debut, with Michael Fassbender as the android David. Not only was it executed wonderfully but it showed some real science fiction worthy thought behind it. It is portrayed as a marketing video for the Weyland corporation's new line of "8th generation" android, and features a faceless interviewer asking David various questions. The extraordinary part comes when the robot is asked "David, what makes you sad?". The android begins to recite very general topics that are associated with sadness like war, poverty, and cruelty while also shedding profuse tears from both eyes and exhibiting just a hint of sorrow in his expression. Then he adds, "I understand human emotions, although I do not feel them myself". I practically leapt for joy! After years of watching robots portrayed as either emotionless or as actually having feelings, someone finally had enough insight to predict that when we humans eventually do build robots, we will program them to respond as we would ourselves, even though the emotional responses would simply be mimicked, not felt. It would of course be up to the designer to decide whether or not to include in the robot's programming an awareness of this distinction as shown in the video, but doing so makes it even more fun. David goes on to explain why he has been programmed to exhibit emotion, including "making it easier for my human counterparts to interact with me". I personally don't care all that much about where the space jockey came from, but if the script has some of that kind of insight within it, then there's no need to fear disaster. To top it off, the video ends with a close-up showing the Weyland Industries logo perfectly embedded within the android's fingerprint. Superb.

Click here for my thoughts on the film after its release.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Nuclear Ants

A lot of old black-and-white science fiction films were created in the 1950's. Most of them were gloriously bad, some were decent, but only a handful could be described as great movie making. I recently re-watched one such film that I remember first seeing as a kid with my Father. It was a 1954 film called simply "Them!" (yes, including the punctuation), which is not the kind of title you would expect to be associated with anything of quality. But Dad never watched anything that didn't sport an intellectual angle, and even as a kid I could tell this one was a bit different from the usual monster movie. Made during the cold war era, it carries a message about the dangers of using Earth's natural resources as a test laboratory for a science so new (nuclear fission) and an application so destructive (nuclear weapons) that it is impossible to predict the unintended consequences.

I am inclined to forgive the writers in 1954, when nuclear science was still young, for coming up with the now ridiculous and overused premise that fallout radiation can cause genetic mutations sufficient enough to turn ordinary creatures into giant monsters. At least this film gave the ants 9 years of successive generations to do it. In reality, it should take closer to several million years and would require environmental conditions tailored to produce gigantism. But once you get past that, everything else is approached with such scientific rigor, thanks to the role played by Edmund Gwenn, the chief scientist assigned to the case. He and his also scientist daughter actually postulate the incredible theory of what's happening just by examining the footprints. It is they who hatch the plan (pardon the pun) to eliminate the nest, investigate and discover two queens have escaped the New Mexico desert where the original nuclear testing was done in 1945, and convince the U.S. military of the urgency to find them and hunt them down. A 24-hour media monitoring effort ensues to look for any evidence of their location. One queen ends up settling onto a Navy ship which is eventually sunk, and the other heads to the underground storm drain system of Los Angeles, where they have to go in and rescue two children before they can torch the place.

Watching it now, I can really appreciate the quality of the screenplay, acting, and direction.  The focus is on the story and characters more than the ants themselves, which are only shown when necessary to advance the plot elements, and with a good balance of action and drama. You also have to admire the fact that the ants were all life-size mechanically operated replicas. Given that, they don't look half bad. The Wikipedia write-up says it was nominated for its special effects and that it was the first "big bug" movie, bestowing it with at least some historic precedent.

Below is an original trailer. Don't be too put off by the dramatic music and opening titles - it was pretty standard for the time period. And its interesting that the beginning quote in this clip is actually uttered in the movie by the scientist in a private meeting, not proclaimed by a TV announcer. Yes, Hollywood marketing has been around a long time.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Barsoom

Back when I was in grade school, my father worked for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory during a time when they were beginning to explore the nearby planets in our solar system. He used to bring home photos of flybys over Jupiter from the Pioneer 10 and 11 satellites and had a whole collection of Mars and Venus flybys from the Mariner days. These were high quality photo prints which I was able to grasp were not only historically important but rare to obtain in the format I was seeing them. I can still remember the day when he brought home a set of photos of the surface of Mars, the first ever taken, from the Viking program. Viking had two vehicles, an Orbiter and a Lander, and my Dad was on the Mars Lander team. You just don't forget things like that.

Mars came to my mind again recently when reading an article that mentioned the upcoming release of a sci-fi film called John Carter of Mars. What got my attention was that he talked as if it was a long awaited event, and yet I hadn't heard of it before. I looked it up and discovered it is an old series from the first half of the 20th century created by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Although that name sounded really familiar, I couldn't quite put a finger on it, so it was back to googling again and then a surprise when I found the origin of my recollection - Burroughs also created the original Tarzan series! That put the upcoming film in a new light, because it is clear now that we have a story that has some staying power, written by someone with proven success. According to the Wikipedia link, Burroughs grew up during the pulp fiction era of American literature and actually wrote a great number of science fictions stories and serials which were published in parallel with his Tarzan adventure series. Long awaited indeed.


It's kind of amazing how much of a role our nearest planetary neighbor has played in the history of sci-fi literature. I managed to find this fairly comprehensive survey of this very topic. What's really neat about the list is that, for each entry, it describes how the red planet itself and its Martian inhabitants were depicted. Two things about it stick out for me. One is the wildly speculative nature of works prior to the satellite programs in the 1960's. The second is the vast array of authors that have dabbled in the subject. All the big names are there - Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Bradbury (of course), Wells (of course again), and even Philip K. Dick. Also listed there with a range from 1912 to 1943 is Burroughs own series in which Mars is referred to as Barsoom by its warlike inhabitants.

Now I don't expect to find much thought provoking science fiction in JCM. Both the film trailers and the nature of the period in which they were written (Buck Rogers, etc.), tells me it is more of an adventure story than anything else, a Tarzan in space, if you will. Add to that the Disney label and you have a nice family adventure film. I'm eager to see if they will try to explain away the imaginative world of E.R. Burroughs on this 100 year anniversary of the first work, or just throw reality unapologetically out the window. The historic nature of the material means I am compelled to go see it even if just to be able to comment on it here.

Well, when JCM finally came out in theaters, it flew by like an owl in the night. I was so busy tending to the birth of my second child that I had to wait for it on pay-per-view. Word was that it didn't do so well and I was eager to see what had happened. I'll begin with the good points. As I had expected, one of the strongest aspects of the film was the overall story. All the elements of great storytelling were there, alongside a very colorful and well developed set of characters which were in fact well cast and rather well portrayed. Another striking aspect of the film was the effectiveness of the CGI motion capture used on all the Thark characters. Although James Cameron pioneered the technique in Avatar, this movie seamlessly maps the actors' performances onto a body type much less similar to the human form. The Tharks display a wide range of emotion on an elongated face with eyes at the top and two large tusks protruding from the cheeks. They use four limbs with ease and can lock tusks in combat and it all looks so natural. And I must say that some of the best performances come from the Thark characters like Tars (Willem Dafoe) and Sola (Samantha Morton). Heck, even the martian dog Woola turns out to be a great character.


It is sad that in spite of all this, the film's fall from grace is mainly due to a barrage of technical problems. The music isn't quite right here, the directing could be better there, the dialogue just a bit too corny in places, and oh the editing! Critics rightly pick at the opening scene for being way to early and involved, many of the battle scenes are chaotic and hard to follow, and there are glaring holes that seem like they were cut out to save running time. Sola's origins, a crucial part of her character arc, are passed over with a line. John Carter's remorse for not being able to save his family, another crucial character element, is flashed back at a turning point in the film without having introduced it in the first place. Perhaps they cut out his telling of the story to Deja Thoris, which would explain how a glance at his wedding ring could remind her of his past love when no one ever explained to her what a wedding ring is. Someone must have thought that all the ubiquitous action scenes were more important to the story than the character arcs. I hope they notice what happened at the box office.


I've heard that Burroughs' original tale is much richer in content and perhaps it needed to be broken into several films to do it justice. To answer my original curiosity about its connection to reality, it takes place in the mid 1800's, and there's an implication that the planet Mars is on its way out. However, there's so much that reaches into the world of fantasy - eternal beings, humanoid martians, voodoo like energy sources, transporters based on incantations - that I suppose it doesn't much matter. What does matter is the contribution that Mr. Burroughs' made the world of science fiction.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Size Matters

As a kid growing up in L.A. county, my family and I were able to visit Disneyland about once a year. It still seems like a dream being able to get in for $12.50 back in '82. One of my favorite rides at the time (second after the old Submarine Voyage) was called Adventure Thru Inner Space. It was a perfect mix of serious science and fascinatingly creative theater. There is a really accurate digital re-creation of the ride here on Youtube that I think anyone who's never experienced it should take a look at. It remains a neat experience, even if the science is a bit outdated by today's standards. Its entrance way is now replaced by the Star Tours ride, but most of it originally went underneath Tomorrow Land and came out on the other side of the walkway. The fact that the bulk of that space has been converted to a ride modeled after a video game (Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters) illustrates the chasm between Walt Disney's original vision for Tomorrow Land, which was to inspire people's imaginations about the future of our society, versus what it is today.

I was able to finally introduce my 4 year old to Disneyland recently and unlike back then, now have the opportunity to let him re-live the experience of his favorite rides via online videos. I found myself also showing him the rides his Dad went on when he was a kid, and he really loved Adventure Thru Inner Space too. Now he asks me questions about atoms and molecules, which is pretty cool. But the point of all this is to talk about the possibility of miniaturization, the basic premise of that old Disney ride, and the topic of several science fiction films over the years. The one in particular that I think stands out above the rest is 1966's Fantastic Voyage, about a journey into the human body.

What makes Fantastic Voyage unique is that it could possibly be the only attempt by a science fiction film to take the idea seriously and remain successful for its time. Miniaturization has been the realm of fantasy since as far back as Lewis Carroll's trip to Wonderland. But most attempts at mixing the idea with science today end up as comedy. The reasons for that will be touched on later, but the opening text in Voyage (quoted below) makes clear the intended purpose:

"The makers of this film are indebted to the many doctors, technicians, and research scientists, whose knowledge and insight helped guide this production"

You can sense here a certain pride in being affiliated with science that permeated the Apollo Program era. It's no coincidence that the tone of Fantastic Voyage feels similar to the Inner Space ride which opened at Disneyland a year after the film came out. In it, the team that is sent out to save a diplomat's life by entering the man's body is made up exclusively of scientists of different disciplines, and you can just watch how the plot is designed to illustrate all the latest medical knowledge of that time, much of which is still basically accurate even though we've come quite a long way since. Unfortunately, the film was too ambitious for the special effects capabilities of the day. It is rather amusing now to watch various body parts and functions resembling cellophane and cotton balls, the clumsy overlays, and the obvious wire suspensions. That said, some of the footage still holds up well even today. Plus, it has a pretty good dramatic profile based on both the perils of the journey and some Cold War Era spy infiltration themes, performed by some then big names in film like Stephen Boyd, Edmond O'Brien, and of course, Raquel Welch in her heyday. The trailer below illustrates the visual effects well, but you have to see it to get the more scientific side.



Although miniaturization is a fun concept, its biggest problem is being really tough to swallow scientifically. The problems are just too numerous to go into, but let's look at a few. Most stories depict the shrunken targets as being much lighter than the originals. That not only violates the conservation of matter and energy law, but the masses of all the fundamental particles, like electrons and protons, are physical constants tied up with all sorts of atomic and chemical processes. Thus, the idea violates the entire basis of particle physics. If you ignore that, the fundamental forces like gravity and electromagnetism fortunately scale down just fine, but then you have the interface issue to deal with. A shrunken person's tiny molecules would no longer be able to chemically interact with the larger ones in the environment. They could not breathe normal air or eat normal food. They could not even expose their bodies to a normal environment due to the enormous relative pressures and temperatures provided by the larger molecules with huge relative momentum. In Voyage, the crew is miniaturized inside a vessel with a closed environment. If that environment were miniaturized along with them, it could push the problem out to the hull, but there are even worse issues after that. If the molecules had reduced mass, that would affect their energy levels and completely change how they interact with light and other EM radiation, making it impossible for their retinas to see anything. All this just represents the problems inherent with the final miniaturized state, but what about the miniaturization process itself? What possible mechanism could accomplish such a feat? I should also add that each of these issues apply just as well to the opposite process, namely, expanding things to larger than life size. Is there a name for that like "enlargification"?

Apparently, James Cameron and Shawn Levy are working on a remake of Fantastic Voyage as we speak. I'm not expecting the scientific angle of any remake to measure up even to its 1966 inspiration, but I believe there is a way one could pull it off. There is a hot area of research today where the word "miniaturization" meets reality, namely, Nanotechnology. This is where people are actually building machines at the molecular level. Often featured in sci-fi stories are armies of nano-robots that work together to accomplish a task. Although it would require more advancement in tiny antenna and data storage and processing technologies, it is not inconceivable that a remotely controlled mini-robot could become a reality. The next step might be using the mini-robot as a surrogate so that you could experience the world from the robot's perspective, and do things like travel vicariously into a human body to assist medical treatments. Given Cameron's past disregard for real science in his sci-fi undertakings, I don't expect he'll take anything close to that approach for his remake, but it might be an interesting idea on which to base a novel. Any takers?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Warp Drives and Wormholes

What would science fiction be without some means of interstellar travel? It's true that some aliens can be imagined as hidden in our own solar system, such as the ancient guides of Kubrick's 2001 or the underground Selenites from First Men in the Moon, and some may already be here on the earth, hidden from view, such as the pilots in War of the Worlds, or the NTI's in The Abyss. But most aliens we read of come from much farther away. If they are to interact with humans, either they need to come to us, we need to go to them, or we both need to meet somewhere in the middle. In most cases, this needs to happen within a reasonable time frame, and this is the fundamental problem. You can't simply call upon some highly advanced technology to explain it because the laws of physics prohibit anything from traveling faster than light. Speedy as that may be, it is not fast enough. It still takes over 4 years for light to reach us from our nearest solar neighbor, Alpha Centauri. Thus, all sorts of creative fiction has arisen to help us accept that a space ship can hop across the galaxy and get back in time for dinner. I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at some of them. This entry is thus dedicated to the impossible ubiquity of short duration interstellar travel.

Traveling involves basically three physical variables: speed, distance, and time. To get somewhere faster, you must either increase your speed, shorten the distance to the destination, or somehow slow down local time for the traveler. Let's take a look at how each of these methods have been utilized by writers in the past.

GOING FASTER
This is the method of choice for two of the biggest franchises in sci-fi - Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Trek alone made the term warp speed a pop culture substitute for describing anything going really fast. But what exactly is it? Roddenberry's literary team had a real knack even back in the 60's for coming up with fictional names for technologies that sounded almost plausible. Just the term "warp" brings to mind relativistic concepts of bent space or time. I always assumed that they were simply fractions of light speed, but that made the stars which would fly off the edge of the view screen seem ridiculous. Apparently the intent was to represent multiples of the speed of light. This Wikipedia entry states that the very first pilot episode of TOS, The Cage, refers to the warp drive as producing a time warp, which gets around the Einstein limit but not the method used to accomplish it. Later episodes link warp speed to subspace, which is also used to explain how communication messages can get back to Starfleet faster than light travels. But subspace is just a made up term with no analog in the world of science. Of course, the opposite of subspace would be the equally made up hyperspace, which is the method of explanation chosen in the Star Wars franchise, enabled by the so-called hyperdrive.

SHRINKING THE DISTANCE
The only way to find a path shorter than a straight line between two points in space is to just bend the space, which is theoretically possible thanks to General Relativity. The only viable candidate in existing theory to accomplish this is an Einstein-Rosen bridge. It is a kind of tunnel through space-time, commonly referred to as a wormhole. We see this method used for example at the space stations Babylon 5 and DS9. What always made me chuckle is that an E-R bridge lives at the center of a black hole, where ordinary matter would be crushed under the enormous gravitational forces. Also, there's no way to control where you might end up on the other side, and even if you could enter it, the journey would be almost instantaneous, not through some long swirly corridor as is often depicted. I've recently read about more stable types of wormhole theories, but they require an exotic form of negative energy that probably does not even exist. There does seem, however, to be enough wiggle room at the boundaries of physics (see this link) with which you could build a barely plausible wormhole fiction.

SLOWING THE CLOCK
The final way to shorten interstellar travel time is to slow down the aging process of the traveller, and the most plausible method has more to do with biology than physics. I'm talking about the cryogenic freeze, as we encounter aboard the Nostromo in Alien, or the Hunter-Gratzner in Pitch Black. Of course, this doesn't really count as "speedy" interstellar travel because even if the crew doesn't age, the rest of the world outside still does, and it doesn't make the actual travel time any shorter. But at least it is within the realm of future technological advancement. If you take a more physics level approach you can slow down time itself by traveling close to the speed of light, where Special Relativity says you won't age as fast as the world outside. But you don't escape the problem of everyone you know back on Earth dying of old age before you reach your destination. And besides, traveling at that speed requires so much energy you couldn't do it by bringing fuel along (as illustrated in this cool analysis of the Relativistic Rocket).

Think of any science fiction book, film, or series that involves space travel and you'll most likely encounter one of these methods being used. Anything else is bound to start crossing over into pure fantasy.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Next

As I pondered what to write about next ;), I decided to re-watch a fun little film that I originally put aside because it did not really seem like science fiction per se. I was almost shocked when the opening credits stated it was based on a story by one of the great authors of science fiction, the prolific Philip K. Dick. It is amazing how many of my favorite films turn out to be based on his stories once I take the time to look into it. The film is simply called Next and was released in 2007 starring Nicolas Cage in the lead role, who I've always liked for reasons I can never quite pinpoint.

The story the film claims to be based on is called The Golden Man, but a quick read of the plot synopsis reveals that the connection is quite tenuous. Dicke's story is about a future world of mutants oppressed by normal humans, almost like something out of the X-men series. The only common thread between the two works is that the lead character can see into the near future. The writers, led by Gary Goldman who also wrote the screenplay for another Dicke adaptation, Total Recall, took that one idea and expanded it into an entirely original story set in the present day. Without so much as pondering how it could happen, they ask the question: "If a man was born with the ability to see a few minutes into the future, what would he do with that ability? What would his life be like?". Such a question can only be answered by parable, and the story they produce illustrates the idea wonderfully, even if it does fall short in other areas.

=======================[spoilers below]=======================

Cage plays a character named Cris Johnson who is born with the ability to see 2 minutes into the future, and only his own future. But there is a catch that is summarized in this key quote that is heard via his own narration at the beginning and end of the film: "The thing about the future is, every time you look at it, it changes... because you looked at it. And that changes everything else." Dicke's story actually likens it to a chess match where the opponent looks at all possible strategies 5 moves ahead and then chooses the one that has the most favorable outcome. We first find Cris employed as a small time Vegas magician with a typically cheesy stage name of Frank Cadillac. In his show he uses his skill to predict what will happen to guests. By passing his skills off as mere magic tricks, he is able to hide his true ability and lead a somewhat normal life. Given the unbelievable nature of the gift, it is a very believable way of coping with it.

Seeing the immediate future can be very handy in Las Vegas, so Cris plays the tables to make a little cash on the side. He bets modestly to avoid attention. When that doesn't work, he has no problem escaping the guards before they get to him. One of the fun choices of the director was to sometimes trick us by showing us the future as if we're seeing the present, then backing up and showing how Cris actually avoids the scene we just witnessed by taking another course of action. For example, he is being chased by the police in a car which gets hit by an oncoming train as he tries to cross the track - Boom! No more Cris. Suddenly we're back 15 seconds when he actually foresaw that event. He then steps on the accelerator and just misses the train, leaving the police stuck behind it. Such a trick by the director might normally bother me but it doesn't in this case because I realized that it's a much better way to illustrate what is going on in Cris' head than trying to interrupt the story with silly dream sequences. Just as long as it is not overused. But even the big twist at the end just made me grin at the cleverness of it all.

The story involves a love interest (played sincerely by Jessica Biel) that Cris cannot seem to escape, and an FBI chase after a group of terrorists who have stolen a Russian nuke and intend to use it. One agent (a mean Julianne Moore) has followed Cris and believes he is the answer to their problem, and that complicates his newfound romance. Overall, the plotline and the characters are not very convincing, but what redeems it is how Cris uses his ability to achieve his intended goals. It is just great to watch him in action and try to figure out how he did it. For example, he's leading a group of soldiers through dangerous territory and suddenly stops and tells them "Wait, sniper overhead!". You know he just saw himself getting shot a few seconds ahead. They ask him "Where is he?", and he says "I'll locate him...". We see only Cris concentrating for a few seconds and then he reports the sniper location. What he actually did was move out in several different directions in the future and see where he felt the bullet, and then used triangulation to determine the sniper's location - or something like that. You have to think a few steps ahead to follow it all, which makes the whole film worth a second viewing.

Believability aside, I think this film would be squarely placed in the sci-fi category if there had been some attempt to explain the phenomenon. Imagine if Cris instead had a device that could see a few minutes into the future - like a time machine. That, of course, would change the plot dynamics since the parties in question would be after the device rather than after the man. It also would add more complication to an already confusing concept to put on screen. I think the authors left it out so they could focus on the main character's life and how his gift affects everything he does, and that was in my opinion a good decision.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Westworld

It's been a while since my last entry, and I'm forced to conclude that I have now written about almost everything in science fiction that has piqued my interest in the past. It kind of amazes me that it actually took some 90 entries to reach this point. This entire excursion has exposed me to a lot of science fiction material that I would have never heard of or would have passed over, and so I find myself beginning to follow these many leads to see what is "out there". In some ways, it is like trying to find tiny diamonds in a giant pile of coal, but it can be fun. And I have pledged to myself, and to any readers, not to write about anything that I would not want to read myself. Any suggestions, of course, are welcome.

So after several pass overs I finally came across a 1973 film called Westworld. The first thing that caught my interest was that it was written directly for the screen by one of my favorite authors of the genre, Michael Crichton. Not only that, but it was directed by Crichton too, his first Hollywood film! So we already have some historical significance there, but was it any good? I would say yes, quite good, thus exhibiting Crichton's natural ability for both screenplay writing and film directing very early on in his career.



Westworld is about an expensive amusement park which promises an experience like nothing you've seen before, but then something goes terribly wrong and causes all sorts of mayhem. Sound familiar? Yes, it is the exact same story structure as Crichton's much later novel Jurassic Park (1990). In Jurassic, he explored the possible dangers of an emerging technology of the day: genetic engineering. In Westworld, he explores the possible dangers of an emerging technology of that time: computers. In 1973, personal computers were still a few years away, so Westworld was run by a fully staffed underground central computer facility. That facility controlled three fantasy lands: an ancient Roman city, a medieval castle, and an old American Western frontier town. These were populated with lifelike robots that guests could interact with in whatever ways pleased their fancy, all for $1000 per day (this was before the hyperinflation of the late 70's). It's not a very complex plotline, but it contains enough originality and enough well timed suspense to keep it moving along. Although it is strange to see Yul Brenner as the menacing robot, he plays it almost perfectly - not too human, but not too robotic either.

The special effects look dated but most of them still hold up rather well even today. I particularly liked the low flying shuttle jet that transports our protagonists in the opening scenes. It has a really unique design and reminds you right off the bat that the film is set in the future. Also a neat transitional shot where they remove Brenner's face to reveal his circuitry. The new technology concepts, however, often leave you puzzled. I don't know if it is because of the lack of computer knowledge in the 70's, but there's so many things in the film that just make you think "Why are they doing it that way?" and "Wouldn't it be easier to do this". For example, Brenner's character ends up being a bigger problem because he just went through an "upgrade" service to give him infrared vision and ultra-sensitive hearing. What possible added value does that provide to the guests? Another big problem is that the scientists end up trapped in the control room because the power goes out and they can't open the electronic doors or keep the oxygen flowing. Huh? What happened to fire escapes and general building safety? And I still can't figure out why is it that, if the guns can't shoot anything with a heat signature to prevent human shooting human, the robots have no problem using them to shoot and kill real people? Someone explained to me that this was part of the malfunction too. That seems like an awfully convenient coincidence to help out the narrative.

But the central cause of all the mayhem turns out to actually be the most prescient of all. They never use the term virus, but they postulate the problem is some type of malfunction that is spreading from one machine to the next, like a "disease of machinery". Until the 1980's, the computer virus was only an idea in the mind John Von Neumann. That just about makes up for all the other silly concepts. Either way, I think Westworld still works for both sci-fi lovers and general audiences.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Mind Machine Interface

The human brain is a fascinating topic. Isn't it ironic that the one part of our bodies which seems to be the most closely linked to our first hand experience, the one associated with our very thoughts and awareness, is the same part of our bodies that we understand the least about? It is this striking contrast that makes speculation about the brain the subject of so much interesting science fiction material. Even as the pace of our knowledge about it increases, it seems such material is in no danger of becoming obsolete. The recent film Inception delved into the nature of dream states in a way that was original, even if not connected to any recognizable science. Other subtopics include mind control, psychokinesis (ability to move things by thought), telepathy, remote viewing, states of consciousness (e.g. Altered States), memory (e.g. Dark City), and many others.

One of the most common sci-fi topics in this category is the interface between the brain and machines. Although many writers use it simply as a story telling mechanism embedded into some larger context, there are still many films that employ it as a central theme, especially in recent years. Witness the list below in reverse chronological order:

Source Code (2011)
Tron Legacy (2010)
Surrogates (2009)
Avatar (2009)
Minority Report (2002)
The Matrix Trilogy (1999-2003)
The Thirteenth Floor (1999)
Johnny Mnemonic (1995)
Lawnmower Man (1992)
Total Recall (1990)
Dreamscape (1984)
Brainstorm (1983)
Tron (1982)
Forbidden Planet (1956)

The question I wish to explore here is, given that we understand the technology side of this interface, which is just information processing, does what we know or do not know about the brain today make such future technologies plausible, or are they another impossible ubiquity of the genre? The answer I arrive at for myself is that it really depends on which type of technology it is. I'd like to try to explain some of my reasoning behind this belief and then how it applies to various future technologies. I sincerely hope it is worth the read.

If we liken the functions of the brain to a modern computer, we can identify many things that both computers and brains can do: logical computation (thinking), memory storage (remembering), retrieval (recalling), and erasure (forgetting), interfacing (communicating), and data processing (recognizing). These are important categories because they represent functions that in principal could be duplicated by a computer. Let's list them again:

Computer-Like Brain Functions:
  • thinking (as in deductive reasoning)
  • remembering
  • recalling
  • forgetting
  • communicating
  • recognizing
There are several other functions that seem to be unique to human beings, such as the following:

Human-Like Brain Functions:
  • choosing (as in free will) - Computers make choices based on predetermined conditions, which is the same as computation. For this reason, there are many who believe free choice to be an illusion.
  • feeling
  • imagining - This is a very interesting one. It refers to creating or recreating an experience in the mind.
  • dreaming - Similar to imagining but without the same level of conscious awareness.
  • insight - Understanding that is greater than the sum of the evidence.
In fact, anything we can refer to as subjective experience, in my opinion, is a uniquely human trait. It is wrapped up in what we often refer to as consciousness. I read a fascinating book recently by physicist Roger Penrose called Shadows of the Mind in which he lays out what I think is a water tight proof that consciousness cannot be the product of computation and therefore it will never be attained by computer systems or even any system based on known physical laws. He believes that consciousness arises from yet undiscovered physical laws which the brain is utilizing. Once discovered, he believes a machine could be constructed based on those laws that does attain consciousness. But Penrose also leaves open one other possibility, the one to which I subscribe, which is that consciousness is a metaphysical phenomenon that is outside the realm of scientific explanation. This short summary regarding my views on consciousness is here to help explain where my own conclusions about the futuristic technologies below come from.

Let's now take a look of some technologies or capabilities related to the brain that commonly appear in sci-fi literature:

Mind Reading - Unlikely Yet Possible
    What I refer to here is a transfer of thoughts from one mind to another, or telepathy. It is a capability frequently portrayed by alien characters or even enhanced humans. It includes real time telepathy as exhibited by the Psi Corps of Babylon 5, and memory reading as employed by the Vulcan mind meld. I believe that these capabilities are not a huge stretch given our own experiences today. How many times have you "known" what someone is else thinking? If we can do this via external clues such as expressions and body language, whose to say you couldn't learn to do the same from an EEG or other type of signal? A connection from one mind to another does not require any real understanding of the mechanism underlying that connection, which is why I leave it open to the realm of at least metaphysical possibility.

Mind Viewers - Almost Certainly Impossible
    It's one thing to know what another person is thinking, but the term mind viewer refers to constructing a representation of a person's thought's into actual images that can be viewed. This does not mean seeing what someone else is seeing in real time, which could be accomplished in principal by attaching tiny cameras to their eyeballs. Rather, we are talking about translating what a person is imagining into real images, or even reconstructing things that were seen in the past from stored memories. This seems to me a much more difficult proposition, yet it is amazing how often it is portrayed. How many episodes of Star Trek feature aliens who "reconstruct" artificial Earth environments from the minds of their human subjects? The earliest mind viewer I can recall is in Quatermass and the Pit, where Dr. Roney has invented a device that fits over a person's head and allows others to see their thoughts on a CRT monitor.
    It is easy for us to conceive of such a technology because when we imagine things, it is like we are re-living an actual experience. As mentioned above, I believe that this subjective experience within the brain is inaccessible to any physical process or device in principal. What is accessible is the movement of the electrons within the cells of the brain at the time a person is imagining something. I also do not believe that images are stored in the brain in the low level representation of light pixelation. That would be extremely inefficient. Rather, it is stored as a set of modifications in the neural network at sites associated with the content of the images that are seen. I also believe that each person develops this network in their brain differently, like a fingerprint, making it impossible to find a mapping from the brain structure back to the original image content. Thus, mind viewers in my opinion are completely outrageous, and they always seem to make me wince when I encounter them in stories.

Memory Erasure - General Memory Possible, Specific Memories Not Possible
    Men in Black features a "neuralyzer" device that selectively erases the last X minutes or so of a person's memory. We already know that getting bumped in the head can cause people to forget things. If we know that memories are stored in the brain by altering the neural connections, it is certainly possible that by some form of deliberate brain "damage", one can cause someone to forget things. The question is, how do you know which parts of the brain to fiddle with? Erasing the most recent memories seems plausible since those changes could probably be identified in some way. However, trying to selectively erase a particular memory, or all memories of a particular subject, would be quite impossible for the same reasons given for the viewer technology above, unless you had been there to record the changes at the time the memories were formed.

Mind Control - Possible, To A Degree
    In The Wrath of Khan, the villain uses an alien worm creature to control Chekov. The worm somehow attaches to the subject's brain and makes them succumb to commands. This is not unlike hypnosis, and certain drugs are known to make people more open to suggestion. But hypnotists and even cult leaders know that without the subject's willing cooperation, they could not control anyone's behavior entirely. Recent research, for example, suggests that the parietal cortex is the place where decisions about movement are made, but it is not that simple. Stimulating this region either makes people have the desire to move, or makes them think they moved when they in fact did not. Stimulating the premotor cortex causes them to move involuntarily, but they are aware that they did not intend it. I believe the actual decision to move originates in the will, which is a metaphysical event. Thus, I think certain degrees of mind control may be possible, but the human will can never be completely subdued. Fortunately, most writers seem to agree with this and allow their mind controlled characters to break away from their captors given sufficient willpower.

Virtual Reality Systems - External Easy, Internal Not
    This theme has appeared a lot in modern times, with The Matrix serving as the poster-child example. We know that virtual reality is easy to accomplish if you do it by sending sensory data directly into a person's senses, and this is how it is often portrayed. The interface in Matrix is instead a direct connection to the brain. This means it requires stimulation of the sensory input centers of the brain in such a way as to re-create the desired sensations. However, Matrix has the advantage of creating an interface that each person grows up with from birth, and therefore would have the opportunity to "teach" the brain how to interpret its signals. The big problem there, of course, is that it would render your real senses useless. Once unplugged, it would most likely be impossible for your brain to re-wire itself to experience the real world through eyes, ears, and skin. The system in Surrogates does not have this limitation, but it presents an even more problematic technology based on some type of digital telepathy.

There is so much that could be covered on this topic, but I decided to try to keep it to one long entry rather than a lot of short ones because it is not the main focus of the blog. It is, however, a relevant topic in science fiction literature that won't be going away any time soon. I'm sure there are a lot of other opinions out there if you care to share them.