3, 2, 1, impact…

I found that I’d grown fond of asking the question, “Are there any films that take place entirely within one room?” It wasn’t entirely clear why. In preparing for this  post I found a list of over 100 movies the compiler claims satisfy this query. Of these, I’ve seen barely 10% but none of them precisely tell me the answer is “Yes.”

Most of the movies on the list fall into the jump-scare horror and/or torture-porn buckets. However, the best example of almost one-room stories among those films I have scene would be Rear Window (Paramount Pictures, 1954). Even in this some of the action does take place elsewhere.

Why ask the question?

The central reason is one of motion – as it turns out. Movement is essential to drama. If nothing moves, we have a painting. They can, in a sense, tell a story. They can certain move us – emotionally. But that’s not really the same thing.

Movies can be art in and of themselves. A few spring to mind pointing that out. Segment 5 – Crows – in Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (Warner Bros., 1990) and Episode 10 of Season 5 – Vincent and the Doctor – in new NuWho (BBC, 2010). Oddly enough both of these examples involve van Gogh.

The quintessential presentation of it, in my opinion, is Cameron at the Art Institute of Chicago.

moved


“This I thought was very relevant to Cameron—the tenderness of a mother and a child which he didn’t have.”

“I used it in this context to see – he’s looking at that little girl – which again is, a mother and a child. The closer he looks at the child, the less he sees, of course, with this style of painting. But the more he looks at it, there’s nothing there. He fears that the more you look at him (Cameron), the less you see. There isn’t anything there. That’s him.”

John Hughes


Seurat’s work was begun in 1884 but took two years to complete – placing it a century before the release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Migration-Tree-plan

The chart here is part of various “visual outlines” for Astral. This doesn’t only show each of the 62 interstellar colonies of Earth but the factions

As an outline, to me it shows the despair and paranoia of one of the villains. The chart demonstrates some of the incredible obstacles faced by a large portion of the society Astral examines. In making this image more than one scene coalesced for me that I hope will illustrate – in the writing – the suffering of one particular faction stemming from the policies of the powers that be.

Every journey will have obstacles; sometimes it starts with misplaced keys. Any trip might begin in a mix of fear and hope.

Toward the end of May I wrote about woe and joy in travel and quoted Dr. Henri Poincaré with regard to hope having somewhat more weight. He also once said, “The mind uses its faculty for creativity only when experience forces it to do so.”

This is true both of writers and their characters.


the needs of the many…

There are probably no authors setting out to have a star or planet named in their honor. That said, very few would decline such homage. Asteroid 4659 and a crater on Mars bear the name Roddenberry. The creator of Star Trek likely didn’t include earning this sort of acknowledgement while developing the series.

Gene Roddenberry did, however, attempt to get the science right. He consulted scientists and engineers on a somewhat regular basis. He was also a student of his times and wanted to present entertaining adventures about the future blended with relevant social commentary. Nichelle Nichols, the original Uhura, famously tells a story that each episode was meant to be a modern morality play.

Countless people recount that original Trek inspired their choice of careers while not necessarily having achieving Roddenberry’s dream of humanity at peace with itself and unafraid of its future in mind. This phenomenon is not limited to math and technology either; I know of at least one lawyer who found the trial of Spock in the episode “Menagerie” fascinating enough to prompt study of jurisprudence. The humanism and idealism of Star Trek are very important facets of my long-standing desire to write and make art.

arrowhead

Many fans consider the reboot of the franchise to be less than worthy of the title and have branded it – somewhat pejoratively – as the “Abramsverse” or “NuTrek”. Paramount and CBS have recently attempted to get ahead of these descriptions. They’d like us to call it “The Kelvin Timeline”.

Chris Pine is the second actor to portray Captain Kirk. He has been quoted as giving the following response regarding the franchise shifting away from speculative futurism in favor of presenting an action thriller.

You can’t make a cerebral Star Trek in 2016. It just wouldn’t work in today’s marketplace. You can hide things in there – Star Trek Into Darkness has crazy, really demanding questions and themes, but you have to hide it under the guise of wham-bam explosions and planets blowing up. It’s very, very tricky. The question that our movie poses in ‘Does the Federation mean anything? And in a world where everybody’s trying to kill one another all of the time, that’s an important thing. Is working together important? Should we all go our separate ways? Does being united against something mean anything?

— Chris Pine, à la SFX Magazine

Star Trek was fond of Shakespeare references and there’s one that perfectly sums up the problem with the Abramsverse and the attitude expressed by Mr. Pine: “…it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The last log entry by Kirk was wonderful fan service at the end of The Undiscovered Country and should now be interpreted by CBS and Paramount as exactly how fans would like to see Star Trek handled – rather than catering to a formula while implicitly demeaning the audience.

This is the final cruise of the Starship Enterprise under my command. This ship and her history will shortly become the care of a new generation. To them and their posterity will we commit our future. They will continue the voyages we have begun and journey to all the undiscovered countries, boldly going where no man… where no one has gone before.

As part of a recent presentation by Claire Legrand, Megan McCafferty, and Leanna Renee Hieber all three authors recommended that any authors in the audience write what they loved reading as children. Write what they wanted to read.

Best Faction map

In broad strokes I plan to cover some of the same ground as Star Trek did: the destiny of humanity in space and to what extent human nature might be baggage carried along the way. It seems fair to say that a writer must be the first fan of his or her own work. So I’ve charted my world(s)-building – applying a different rotation to the same field of real stars used for the Arrowhead interpretation. Astral’s interstellar factions overlapped each other in a previously posted map. That’s not the case in this new one.

At a convention I once attended both Gene and Majel Barrett Roddenberry recommended that whatever I might wish to see in Star Trek I should write and tell Paramount. I never did follow their advice but I may hide it under the guise of thoughtful speculation and all the things the Federation still means to me.


матрёшка мозг…

The idea of a matryoshka brain combines Freeman Dyson’s most famous concept with an almost unimaginably large and powerful computer. A Dyson sphere would be a megastructure completely enclosing the Sun capturing all of the solar energy while simultaneously providing an interior surface area many times that of the Earth. Presuming a radius of one astronomical unit (AU), the distance between the Sun and Earth, the area of the inside of the shell would be about 550 million times the planet surface.

Robert Bradbury (presumably no relation to the famous sci fi author) proposed that in addition to absorbing all the power the Sun emits the enclosure would also be one massive computer. Assume a circuit panel about the size of a sheet of printer paper. It would take roughly 4.5 quintillion such panels to cover the inside of a 1 AU Dyson sphere. Using only today’s computing power the capacity would be mind-boggling.

A hard sci fi author by the name of Charles Stross added another feature. He has imagined that minds could be uploaded to such a computer. It has since been the subject of some speculation that an intelligent species somewhere in the multiverse has made all three of these technological advances.

All this to say that the virtual environment provided by a matryoshka brain is one of a very few in which minds similar to our own might not have some form of hierarchy. There are many variations of the notion that “time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” An organizational chart is what keeps everyone from giving orders to everyone else. There’d be too much confusion. Mutually assured insubordination.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that a matryoshka brain would be indistinguishable from a hive mind. It also isn’t a foolproof method for skipping the leader-and-subordinates system. However, a computer with this much power would in all probability be omniscient about the activity of each component mind it hosted.

A matryoshka brain unimaginably far in the future. Astral is set only about 550 years from now. Today’s sociopolitical climate has become a bit obsessed with unfettered individual liberty. A month or so ago I overheard a mother trying to determine why her child was getting terrible grades in school. The frustrated student eventually said, “But you told me to never let anyone tell me what to do.” In and of itself that’s a bit of a paradox but that’s another story.

While considering this and working on world-building for the novel, which is part police procedural thriller, I wondered if authority would still be divided over different tiers of officers. In a pseudo-hive mind there’d probably be no crime; if you know what everyone is thinking anything illegal could ostensibly be prevented à la Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report. He alreadyrank covered the idea of using precognition in circumventing crime and I’m going down a very different road.

So — one of the main characters of Astral is, in fact, a police officer. She does report to someone and supervises a team of seven others. She does wear a uniform and it does contain some circuitry. The exact capacity of this tiniest final doll in the metaphoric nested computer chain isn’t going to be treated here but I have been looking for a reason to have rank displayed on a special screen woven into a uniform for about three years now.

The likelihood that police detectives will abandon rank in favor of consensus or telepathic gestalt any time soon seems as remote as a breakthrough leading to the imminent construction of a computer 200 million miles across. If you discover evidence to the contrary, please let me know. The uniform rank display will turn up somewhere else.


ceteris paribus…

Neither the future nor science fiction should frighten us. Both may raise questions; any lack of preparedness to face them is where fear should lie. Given that we pride ourselves on our intellect relative to every other form of life on the planet – what is there actually to fear?

One of humanity’s greatest powers, with due respect to the domestication of fire and the worthy and opposable thumb, is our capacity to craft definitions. We apply this ability even to ourselves. How we define ourselves is, in fact, one of our obsessions.

In terms of sci fi there are two forces that potentially imperil our comforting view of we humans: augmentation – either by prosthetic or genetic means. During the mid- to late 1980s the first of these defined a large part of cyberpunk fiction and gaming. Robots and cyborgs, however, are older concepts.

Hephaestus in Greek mythology and Ilmarinen of Finnish folklore are both said to have created artificial people. In the first case, these inventions were vessels for some of the aspects humans celebrate about themselves – most notably intellect and wisdom. The Scandinavian example presents a being deficient in what we seek from others. Most fictional androids fall into this latter category and that reflects our concern in defending our definition of being human.

There are nervous jokes made about potential robot overlords. Artificial intelligence is very rarely portrayed as anything but a cause for suspicion. Genetic engineering does not fare better and there are more examples from history to explain why. The idea of using an understanding of DNA to improve humanity is about a century old. Within a generation of the suggestion eugenics earned a bad name. It still summons overlords of a different sort and often paints the consequences as grim. Even basic cloning gives some qualms.

We want to be better creatures and we’re impatient with evolution. At the same time we’re afraid of what may result from taking shortcuts. Cyberpunk, the roleplaying game by R. Talsorian Games, warned of cyberpsychosis and marked the upper limit for augmentation by a loss of Humanity Points. Arthur C. Clarke warned us in 2001 (technically beginning in 1948 and revisited twenty years later) that AI can go dangerously, artificially insane far faster than any biological mind.

About two months ago, I asked a number of friends what aspects of animal DNA they would want woven into their own genetic code. In science fiction terms this is part of what’s known as wetware. The answers boil down to a few categories.

Improve what works well. A more efficient metabolism and better respiration system would be key examples. The most preferred feature from this set was the regeneration of lost limbs and damaged organs.

Increase what is not adequate. The wish to be stronger, faster, and more durable is not exclusive to professional athletes. Many answers here pertained to making our sense of sight far better than it is now, up to and including the ability to see infrared and ultraviolet light. None of the other four faculties called to mind by the word “sense” were among the answers although both proprioception and equilibrium were found to be a bit lacking.

Add cool new features. Without any apparent concern for sensory overload, some would like to sense electric fields, as can sharks and bees. The core of what it means to be a homing pigeon (and to any human who doesn’t want to rely on maps or GPS) depends on magnetoreception and this was also a desired acquisition.

Establish a better perimeter. The chameleon’s talent for camouflage, the signature of the electric eel, and all venomous/poisonous creatures were also envied along with claws and fangs.

It seems odd that no one mentioned immunity to toxins or disease. Also absent was mention of the immortal jellyfish (Turritopsis dohrnii). And, while plants were left out of the initial question, no one went outside the envelope to suggest something from that kingdom.

Cyberpunk’s Chromebook series offered about 400 pages of comparable features and benefits from the technology-based potential sources of human modification.

RememberIn another century, we would probably recognize humans by our definition of the species and culture. That’s only five generations from now — the great great grandchildren of Jane and John Q. Public. People from one millennium past are, all things considered, not that different from us. Would cyber- and/or wetware actually change the contents or just the packing material?

Until innovation extends a lifespan along with the capacity to find an answer, I’ll offer this with hope: We may define ourselves as human so long as we remember to do so.


Perilous by pelorus…

I wouldn’t be the first to describe the difference between hard and soft science fiction. In fact, Tor provides a quite reasonable guide.

From the advent of sci-fi there have been at least two camps. In general, Jules Verne suggested the grand adventures technology might make possible while H. G. Wells and Mary Shelley offered cautions about the potential consequences.

Roughly a century later, the voyages of the USS Enterprise might have begun nearer to Verne. The final frontier gradually became less about exploration of a boundless sea and more an unending series of tensions played out upon it. If not Wells’ territory, certainly near the neutral zone.

How much attention is paid prevailing scientific theories depends on balancing the needs of the story. The world-building for Astral has been to provide an understanding of the hardship the characters have faced before the story begins. The action takes place on a world quite distant from Earth so part of this process has been devising reasonable rules and repercussions for faster-than-light (FTL) travel.

In soft sci-fi FTL simply works at the often literal press of a button. How long the trip may take, what fuel is used, and some understanding of what laws of physics are being broken and how never enter the picture. As the genre approaches the other extreme, nothing superluminal (neither travel nor communications) happens; light not only has a speed limit but it’s one that’s part of the definition of the universe. In between there are warps, jumps, and hyperspace – and that’s where Astral sits presently – on a scale from 1 to 10, somewhere near 5.

NASA is exploring the possibilities of EM Drive and, while decidedly thrilling, the realities of that are now firmly in the realm of scientific speculation rather than speculative fiction. On the other side of the coin, hyperspace will be forever associated with the Star Wars franchise – at least in the mind of this author.

Making something sound like science can give rise to La Forge syndrome:

“The phase inducers are connected to the emitter array. The override is completely gone and the pattern buffer’s been locked into a continuous diagnostic cycle.”

I’m not a mathematician and I don’t want to run the risk of actually getting some critical math completely wrong. Similarly, I’m not ready to plant a flag and reclaim luminiferous aether in the name of voyages extraordinaire. Some time was spent in study of certain theories of Henri Poincaré and Hendrik Lorentz. While this did not result in a formula it pointed (perhaps tangentially) to answers I can use.

The characters would not be making hops of several light-years in less than the blink of an eye. The farther the actual distance traveled it would still take longer. In Astral a trip from Earth to δ Pavonis would take between two weeks and nine months depending on the equivalent of a warp factor or calculations from a navicomputer. These durations compare to a single Atlantic crossing by steamship at the dawn of the Victorian era or three such journeys under sail combined during the mid-1700s, respectively. A hop of even one light-year would depend on finding a shorter distance than Euclidean geometry would permit.

Ultimately there’s no actual need within the story to know the precise settings of any phase inducers. In the original Star Trek series, the set designers put the label “GNDN” in several places. When asked what this stood for they replied, “Goes nowhere, does nothing.” This in-joke can also serve as a warning to a writer. When it can’t serve the story it can’t be included.

People don’t usually talk about travel unless something goes wrong. Otherwise, a long car trip is reduced in the telling to roads taken and noteworthy sights along the way. With all of this in mind the only reality of FTL travel that matters is what impact they may have on the characters who undertake a crossing.

Astral Space

Non-Euclidean geometry, in strictly mathematical terms, does not equate to things Lovecraft. But while traveling along any weird topology suggested by an extradimensional, self-intersecting manifold what might be seen if looking out a portal? What do the characters think it means? Does it shape their point of view without twisting it to madness?

The navigation of Astral may be in Verne’s spirit but the story winds up at the intersection of Wells and Shelley.


dear Brutus…

dna chain

In mid-May of 2014, at the 60th anniversary of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC), Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was quoted as stating the equivalent of “There’s no gene for invasion in Chinese people’s blood.”

In late June of that year, Jürgen Klinsmann, the head coach of United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) said, “It’s not in the U.S. DNA to go out and play for a draw, nor is it in the German DNA, we’ll both be playing to win.”

The phrase “not in our DNA” has long been a bête noire for me. The connotation is, more often than not, used to state an aversion somehow built in to the behavior of a person or group. As such, it is a reversal of the late ‘90s business jargon of “corporate DNA”. In that context it was meant to express what was part of a company’s vision, mission, and culture. It has evolved into what could become a dangerous misconception based on casual misuse.

While technically correct, behavior is not dictated by DNA, the metaphor has become very common in American political discourse. In May of 2011, then presidential candidate Herman Cain voiced the opinion that being No. 2 economically and militarily is not in our DNA. This bad habit is not limited to the GOP either; their critics often charge that “unlike the conservatives, it’s just not in our DNA.”

Often this is used to hint at one position having moral superiority over the opposing side. Last year, President Obama opined that discrimination casts “a long shadow and that’s still part of our DNA that’s passed on.”

Misuse of “DNA” and what result it may or may not produce is probably unrelated to doubt of or actual opposition to science. For the most part, we trust doctors to use true understanding of genetics to treat or prevent disease. Increasingly we expect forensicologists to employ the same discipline either to convict or exonerate in matters of jurisprudence.

But at the same time the suspicion that the moon landing was a hoax persists and the anti-vaxxer subculture has been gaining strength for more than a century; it’s nothing new.

If we’re not careful about science, whether from ignorance or Luddism, in fiction or reality we run the risk of making potentially tragic mistakes. The Inquisition tried Galileo for heresy in 1633. He was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. Pope Urban VIII had acted out of anger and fear of science and its implications. Considering other acts of the Inquisition, Galileo got off lucky. It took the Vatican almost 360 years to come full circle on their decision with Pope John Paul II finally admitting the errors of the Catholic Church in that regard.

Misapprehension of science including genetics did not spare Alan Turing unfortunate and severe persecution. The father of artificial intelligence and hero of breaking the German Enigma cipher machines during WWII was honored in 1945 with induction to the Order of the British Empire. Six years later he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The following year he was convicted of gross indecency (homosexuality was considered criminal in the United Kingdom from 1885 to 1967) and given a choice between imprisonment and probation. He chose the latter but that forced him agree to hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. It is a widely held belief this judgment led to Turing committing suicide.

It may be hyperbolic to suggest that “It’s not in our DNA.” could lead to future attempts to cure racial or ideological diversity. There probably won’t be further recourse to medicine to enforce conformity with regard to gender binary. But misconceptions, like their cousin – superstition, die hard.

There are dangers in a political climate where one side seeks to make opposition illegal, or worse, misuse science to eradicate it. I can’t – and I don’t think we should – avoid the worry that any belief that fault lies in our stars (i.e., that our behavior is chained to our DNA) could end in catastrophe.


Mirror, mirror…

Authors frequently make the claim they are able to hear their characters speaking – about their own motivations and the world into which they find themselves planted. This is usually not meant to indicate the actual lines of dialog that may appear in the fiction although that can certainly result.

The longer an author, and hopefully any reader, spends involved with the story the more the characters begin to behave like real people. They inform the author precisely who they are as if conversations or interviews with them had actually taken place. If resisted, the writer runs the risk of presenting them merely as puppets.

While world-building and developing some of the science for Astral (working title), many of the intended characters have begun having arguments with each other in a non-dialog manner. The political situation that has grown out of the “realities” of FTL travel and genetic engineering has resulted in the citizens of Dalim entrenching themselves as opposite camps. I have to admit a bit of surprise at this. No author with whom I’ve ever talked mentioned this aspect of character talk.

Flight of the Pegasus

The Flight of the Pegasus

A novel set against the backdrop of human colonization of a few score exoplanets needs details about ships and speed. While developing Astral I’ve consulted a few people who are more adept than I about mathematics, astrophysics, and CAD programs. Chris Newstead and his MOLIMI team are adept and amiable collaborators in helping me envision spaceships. The Flight of the Pegasus is not their work. Stay tuned for that. I’ve no doubt it will impress. Similarly, Roger Sorensen and Ben Adams have been providing assistance with a range of sciences frequently found in sci fi.

World-building in science fiction may involve knowing the star system one has selected has two suns and that the characters living on a planet there would cast two shadows. Letting the characters be more than shadows themselves means more than giving them a backstory and description. I don’t have images for the characters as yet but I know what they think when they look in the mirror.

orbits

The distances traveled and methods for the trip are not as important as really listening to a character’s tales of woe and joy upon reaching the destination. Speculation about future innovations and inventions matters far less than understanding a character’s perspective on their life and plans for living it — and hopefully well regardless of an author’s ideas about any obstacles.

It is part of the writer’s job to obstruct his or her characters. That’s what makes any story interesting. But muting those characters and/or depriving them of the thoughts and skills they claim to have is a disservice to them and a mistake in presenting their saga.

Jules Henri Poincaré was a true polymath of the Victorian–Edwardian era and one of the fathers of special relativity and chaos theory. He has become a new hero of a sort as I’ve been working on Astral.

Dr. Poincaré has been quoted as having said, “If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.” I’ve adopted a comparable point of view about what I must allow for my characters.

 


let’s make it a good one…

Astral is my first effort at a sci fi novel since high school. I don’t have any of the scripts or books I wrote then with one exception and while the retained short story is not The Eye of Argon it isn’t The Time Machine by any stretch.

As noted previously, my science fiction preference requires space travel. But what about the rest of the world(s) in which the story takes place? We’re quite unlikely to invent any propulsion system that could make reaching exoplanets feasible without seeing advances in other scientific and technological fields. By the time any visit to α Centauri is made, it seems probable that we might also have taken a significantly more active role in our own evolution.

Astral won’t be a big bucket into which I’ll pour all the science that appeals to me. However, the characters in the novel will consider many  machines yet to be dreamt of to be common, everyday things. Part of the world-building has to include a fairly thorough understanding of the societal repercussions of fictional innovations. What will it mean if we can travel faster than light and have mastered manipulation of the genome?

Opinion of human civilization 500 years ago can range widely. Should our emphasis be on the artistic achievements of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo or on the rise and impact of Imperialism? Is it more important to note the wars and plagues or the contributions of Martin Luther and Galileo Galilei? In 500 more years what will be the state of art and thought? Human nature may never change, despite our technological sophistication.

By the time audiences first took seats in the Globe Theatre in London and other people were excavating Pompeii near modern Naples, what humanity was and probably would always be was already on full display – fully developed. The fact that Shakespeare and Vesuvius still interest us may prove this point.

There will be more than a few exceptionally dark, perhaps ugly moments in Astral. Tonight I’ve been pondering which aspects of the characters who inhabit one human colony find beautiful and how they find it in their lives.

Any moment in time is both great and horrible if viewed from a wide enough point of view. What sort of future we create and whatever tales we tell about it depend – as it always has – on what perspective we adopt.

Imagine


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The Return of Strangely Beautiful!

Good People,

Permit me to (re)introduce you to a very important book. If an earlier addition of Strangely Beautiful is on your shelf, you’re in for the special treat of new content. If you’ve not had the pleasure of reading this tale, you are invited to make a purchase of it today. Once it arrives, I’m certain you will enjoy the time spent with Leanna Renee Hieber’s finely crafted and much beloved characters.

SBcard

The unique and original creation – Percy Parker – features in this work by a true pioneer in Gothic & Gaslamp fantasy. Miss Parker is, in a sense, an outcast from birth but who among us hasn’t felt the same way some point in our lives? She and Alexi Rychman take center stage, surrounded by mystery and almost Poe-like goings-on.

If you’re a fan of such film and television series as Crimson Peak, Ripper Street, and Penny Dreadful than Strangely Beautiful must adorn your attention and library.

You can read more here.


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