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!

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)
Arrival (2016)
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)
Interstellar (2014)
The Island (2005)
John Carter of Mars (2012)
Jurassic Park (1993)
The Last Starfighter (1984)
Logan's Run (1976)
The Martian (2015)
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)
Rogue One (2016)
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)
Star Wars - The Force Awakens (2015)
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)

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

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)

Michael Crichton
Ray Harryhausen

Dystopian Films
Film Re-Mastering
Force Fields
Humanoid Aliens
Interstellar Travel
Invisibility Cloaks
Mind and Machine
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


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.