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.

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.

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.

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


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


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.