Archive for the ‘fiction’ Category

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Film review: “Interstellar”

November 19, 2014

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

This quote applies, of course, to any number of science fiction films over the last fifty years. But I’ve seen so many reactions on the interweebs to this movie that seemed to be so wrong headed that I wonder if maybe there are several different versions of the movie out there, and I happened to see the one that actually used an extrapolation of science.

Physicist Kip Thorne and producer Lynda Obst started out, much like Kubrick and Clarke, to make a real science fiction movie that was based on fact, or at least logical extrapolations of what we know right now. After a bit, they attracted Steve Spielberg, who in turn suggested Jonathan Nolan to work with them on a screenplay. Ultimately Spielberg had to leave the project, and eventually Nolan got the script to his director brother Christopher Nolan. After some legal wrangling between Paramount and Warner Brothers, the film finally got started. Thorne had many discussions with the Nolans, the effects team, and cast members as the film progressed. For many members of the audience, it probably would not have been necessary to go this far – audiences today will suspend their disbelief for a lot of nonsensical pseudo-science. But the fact they did makes it that much richer for me, and hopefully for a lot of other folks as well. Thorne even wrote a book elaborating on the process, called The Science of Interstellar. I recommend it; not only does it give a good overview of the science used as a basis for the movie, but it also demonstrates how much hard work goes on behind the scenes in a film, sometimes for decades before the film comes out.

Let me say at the outset that I enjoyed the film a great deal. It’s long, at over 2 hours and 45 minutes, and early on it seems a little slow. However, I think that’s just the way I perceive it after all the cgi-laden action/adventure films that have come out over the past decade. This movie doesn’t start with a bang and then just keeps running along. It takes the time to build the relationships in Coop’s (Matthew McConaughey) family for us. However, it seems to take a much shorter time for Coop to be sold on the idea of what probably will be a one-way trip through the wormhole. But then, Michael Caine can be very persuasive, of course!

If you want a recap of the plot, you can always go here. Rather than that, I’d like to reflect on the main theme of the movie, which is, to me, “we can save ourselves with a little bit of time travel, just not the time travel you think.”

Nobody physically goes back in time. (In fact, Thorne is one of scientists best known for explaining why we won’t be able to do that.) However, that doesn’t mean that information can’t be sent back, in one way or another. All you need is a civilization sufficiently advanced to give a father a way to send some information to his daughter – if the father is in the right place, and if the daughter is the right daughter.

WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! I’ve read that some folks who have seen the movie took the bit of speculation about the nature of love as being a tangible, physical force that transcends time and space – presented by Anne Hathaway’s character – and ran with it. Sorry, y’all; you weren’t paying attention later on. It is made abundantly clear that the lines in the dust in Murph’s room were created by artificially-created gravity waves. No “Power of Love” here. I can understand some of the confusion, though: gravity is just as difficult to perceive, and no more easily controlled, at least by us. But not by the post-humans. (That’s what I call ’em. For a long time we are sort of led to believe they are some kind of super-beings just doing us a favor so we don’t die off. Coop makes the mental leap that they are our descendants, greatly evolved.) We never see them, and we only really see one effect of their presence. The “time lattice” Coop uses to communicate with Murph is apparently constructed by the post-humans only for that purpose, so he can give her the information she needs for a breakthrough that allows humanity to finally leave Earth, and apparently just in time.

In a way, this is the “transparent aluminum” storyline: In Star Trek IV, Scotty needs “transparent aluminum” to construct a tank for the whales. He gives the formula to a 20th century chemist/engineer so that he can create what Scotty needs. When asked by Dr. McCoy if this was messing with the timeline, Mr. Scott replies, “How do you know he didn’t invent the thing?”

I suppose transparent aluminum isn’t as big a thing in the 24th century as radio is for us. (Although if asked, most people would identify the inventor of radio as Marconi, if they had any idea at all. Grrr. Tesla, folks, Tesla. Look it up.) Still, Scotty wasn’t worried by bootstrapping materials science and creating the classic causality loop.

To make sure that humanity doesn’t die out by being stranded on Earth, the post-humans leave messages for Murph that subtly suggest to Coop that his trip through the wormhole might not be the sheer folly it seems. Therefore, he goes, lots of crazy stuff happens, and he in desperation makes the dive through the black hole’s event horizon. There they have set up the commo lattice – referred to in the film as a tesseract – for him to use to provide signals to Murph at various times of her life, including those that influenced him in deciding to go in the first place. He also can send the data the older version of Murph needs to make the breakthrough in mastering gravity so that we can get off this rock. He does this by manipulating the second hand on a watch through gravitational effects, sending a lot of data collected from inside the event horizon. It seems to take him only a short time to do this, but as we know, time inside a black hole’s event horizon is different from outside it.

So at the end of it all, no aliens – but something that started out as humanity has to help get its ancestors off the planet, or they won’t exist, and they placed the wormhole in orbit around Saturn just for that purpose. Seems like a long shot, but if they had the history of what had happened at that time, all they had to do is make sure the history had a little help to play out correctly.

Those of you who are believers in the “Many Universes” hypothesis probably won’t buy into this as much. In another universe, no wormhole; in yet another, no Coop to save them, etc. If that interpretation could be brought into the plot, the tesseract would have shown Murph in her room in many, many more versions of the situations that first and last provided communication with her. But the film stays firmly rooted in a traditional causality.

It’s not a new idea, but it certainly is played out in a refreshing fashion. I was happy to see a plot that took that much of the audience’s attention to follow in a big mainstream movie.

There are the nitpicks. First, Coop’s training sucks. They pretty much throw him into the ship with three other people, and away they go. That is necessary so that he can be the space cowboy he needs to be, flying the Ranger by hand at several key points in the movie.

Questions have been raised about the Ranger. Why did it need a big chemical-powered, multistage booster to get off Earth, yet takes off and lands under its own power on several other planets, including one with a surface gravity of 1.3 G? I have a possible answer, though it isn’t covered in the movie: antimatter.

The ships are a combination of tech we have now (Rangers are covered with shuttle-like protective tiles, for example) and very high tech (robots with advanced AI.) We know that making antimatter, at least the way we know we can do it right now, is very slow, requires very large equipment, and is very power-hungry. Maybe the Ranger could have taken off on its own, but say it uses 25% of its available fuel to do so. No more fuel after that. Let’s save some by using a sort of pseudo Saturn V that we had laying around. We may have fueled it with the last antimatter we could produce.

The Ranger has little room for fuel stores, so fuel has to be something very energetic, like antimatter, but it can’t take up a lot of space. Maybe a couple of tanks of reaction mass to interact with the antimatter can be squeezed in. Hydrogen is the best choice if the antimatter is really anti hydrogen, but it isn’t very dense so the tanks have to be insulated like crazy and be larger than LOX or H2O tanks would be.

The other nitpick is tidal effects. On the first planet the explorers are confronted with a tidal wave 4000 feet tall. The planet is too close to the black hole – close enough that time slows down a lot, and tidal effects on the ocean are enormous. The same tidal effects should affect everything on the planet, so it eventually will be torn apart. That to me means it isn’t a good candidate for a new home for mankind.

Also, apparently the light from the black hole (huh?) is bright enough to provide light bright as day – at least, a cloudy day in Iceland. Where is that light coming from, really? You would need it to grow crops. None of these planets sounds particularly pleasant or survivable in the long term!

My major gripe about the film is the score. Hans Zimmer was apparently asked by Christopher Nolan to do something unique. He’s done that if unique means boring, loud and simplistic. Sometimes it was so loud it covered important dialog. The score lent more of a feeling of slowness to the movie as it slogged along, repeating the same phrases over and over again. Did Zimmer listen to too much Philip Glass? I would have thought a score like Alan Silvestri’s for The Abyss would have been appropriate, instead. I think this movie would have been a complete knockout, Oscar-worthy, if the score wasn’t so annoying and boring.

Nolan likes using IMAX cameras, he likes using real film over digital recording, and he likes using practical EFX over CGI when possible. All are great, but remember, far more viewings of this movie will be on TV screens than in the theater. Until we all have our 85 inch 4K HDTVs that extra quality won’t be noticed…but a bad score will be.

In summary, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not the landmark film some people have said it is, but it’s very good, and I highly recommend it to you.

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Is “Ascension” going to be cool or stupid?

July 28, 2014

It has been announced that this fall SyFy channel (God I hate that name) will run a miniseries called “Ascension.” It sounds intriguing, in a weird sort of way. The premise is that in 1963 it was thought that America would soon be involved in a cataclysmic nuclear war – a not unreasonable assumption. Somehow a major leap of technology is made and a generation starship is launched. Not sure how it is determined that there is a habitable planet out there, and how a country that could barely launch a single man into orbit could send 600 people on a centuries-long trip.

Now, I’m a big fan of Project Orion. Except for some pesky Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the fact that JFK was terrified of a spaceship that used nuclear bombs for propulsion, we could have lifted hundreds of tons into orbit by 1970. But that’s another story. And it wouldn’t have been ready for a interstellar trip by 1963.

But I digress. The story is that the folks on the ship are pretty much stuck in the culture of the 1960s, in terms of mores, styles and such. Apparently the big issue is that the generation in power 50 years later is considering turning around and going home. They have received no communications from Earth since they left, so they don’t know if they might find a radioactive cinder or a world out of the Jetsons.

I have to admit, I was intrigued. Then This image showed up on io9 and other web sites:

Ascension ship 2

Yeah, that’s a Saturn V stuck in the middle of that thing. The rest of it looks like it was built out of Legos. I couldn’t image this was the generation ship. It was odd enough that they just stuck the Saturn in there, but how did they get the whole stack into orbit? The F1 engines of the first stage weren’t designed or optimized for a vacuum. Besides, if you have the technology to lift an entire Saturn V into space…well, you generally wouldn’t have to.

I still don’t know what this thing is, but I found this one in a clip on the official Ascension site:

Ascension ship 1

Go watch the clip. This is in a pullback from a view through a porthole, so it looks like it might be the generation ship. Still not enough detail to really see what it’s about, but at least it’s not completely laughable.

So maybe the first ship was something else. I can’t imagine what, but I don’t care how much this is “Mad Men in Space,” if the tech isn’t at least slightly believable, I’m not watching. And I know, there was a bunch of nuttiness in the physics of Battlestar Galactica, and I still watched the hell out of that. So maybe there is a chance this won’t suck…

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Alternate Universes that we don’t think of as alternate universes

December 5, 2013

There are many books and short stories having to do with”alternate universes” – timelines similar to our own but in which a single historical even changes, and over time the results of that action have large consequences. There are the Sidewise Awards, given in both long and short form.

I won’t bore you with a history of alternate history. You can google it faster than I can write about it. However, you might want to check out the work of Harry Turtledove and Robert Conroy, at least.  Maybe one of these days I will list some of my favorites.

But here I’m talking about something else, primarily television shows. Almost all political series that take place in the present day could be called alternate history. Take “The West Wing,” which was running when the 9/11 attack took place. There wee references to it, but not much, and it did not profoundly effect the timeline in the show after that – even though it did in our timeline.

But here’s my favorite: “In the universe of “Star Trek,” no “Star Trek” ever aired.” I don’t remember where I first read that, but I’ve pondered it over the years in idle moments. For example, apparently manned space exploration continued in ST timeline more extensively than in ours – it was good enough to loft a sleeper ship in the late 1990s to get rid of Kahn Noonian Singh and his motley crew. There was that pesky nuclear war around that time, or after; and the Genetics War before Kahn was exiled, but even that didn’t keep Zephram Cochrane from building a warp ship from an old Titan missile.

Phoenix_launch (1)

 

Some like to say that ST inspires us toward that sort of Utopian vision apparently held by Gene Roddenberry. It’s more complicated than that, but I think it is safe to say that ST didn’t really inspire us to maintain manned exploration of space – the Trekkers couldn’t even get NASA to name a real space shuttle after the Enterprise. (The one they named was a test article used for glide tests.) Perhaps a series taking place in the nearer future would have done so more effectively.

Sherlock Holmes, in all his manifestations – novels, stories, films, plays, radio shows, television – existed in a particular world. Usually, as in the original, it was very close to actual history. Later versions had him fighting Nazis and working in a more steampunk Victorian England. The two contemporary versions – “Sherlock” in the UK and “Elementary in the US – apparently take place in a world in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about other things. Perhaps his medical practice took off faster, or maybe he decided to stay in London rather than moving to Southsea, and became involved in other activities.

Still, every time someone in “Elementary” is introduced to Holmes, their lack of surprise at the name, except for its odd sound, seems very strange to me.

Some interpretations of quantum physics imply that there is a multitude of universes. Maybe in one of them Barak Obama lost the Senate election to Jack Ryan, and he stayed in the Illinois General Assembly…

 

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Few posts over the next few weeks

February 28, 2013

Sorry, campers, I know you hang onto my every word. Family medical issues will keep me away most of the time until about May 1. I know you can hang on that long without my observations!

I really recommend that you check out Jerry Pournelle, at www.jerrypournelle.com. I think he’s the original blogger, and his commentary and that of his readers covers science, science fiction, politics, music, health care, education…a very wide range of topics. He is a very wise man and a kickass hard science fiction writer. In fact, he and Larry Niven owned most of the hard science fiction real estate for about 20 years, and both are still writing, together and separately!

See you around the intertubes. Keep your heads down.

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A few comments about why novels don’t get finished

February 16, 2013

I remember a couple of the rules for writers Robert A. Heinlein had, and two of them were:

You must finish what you write, and

You must keep it out there until it is sold.

(I hope I recall those correctly. I confess I’m too lazy to go look ’em up right now. If it wasn’t RAH, it was either Jerry Pournelle or Larry Niven. The second one sounds like Niven.)

Still, my point: none of that rearranging of electrons or scribbling on paper means anything unless you finish it. Okay, sure, you might learn some things from abandoning a project or two – if the idea wasn’t good enough, dump it and find another.

But I’ve been writing the marching band arranging book for a year now, and it’s out for first reading by some band director friends of mine, so I can start looking at something else. I have commitments to write two marching band shows for clients but I can’t write music all day every day. I have to assemble some ideas in the back of my head and then get them committed to notation.

The first novel I wrote takes place in S.M. Stirling’s Drakaverse. It is titled The Righteous Stuff, and as I was writing it bits and pieces appeared on this blog, a few years ago. I finished it three years ago,  I think, submitted it to Baen (who published Stirling’s Draka novels back in the 1990s) and waited for it to be rejected.

Which it was. I wasn’t surprised. I started writing it around 2000 or so, when the Draka novels were still fairly well known. Stirling hadn’t written the Nantucket series yet, or Dies The Fire and the rest of that series, and the concepts in the Draka novels were so unsettling that it was still bouncing around the internet a bit. I got about 50K words done and then didn’t touch it for years. Once I pulled it out I had it finished in about a year, writing off and on. I have two more books in the back of my head in that series.

Besides, I knew that the Draka novels always made Jim Baen uncomfortable, because SPOILER ALERT! the bad guys, essentially, won in the end. I didn’t submit it until after Jim Baen had passed, but even if the story was good enough, and I don’t know if it was, it would have required Stirling’s approval. His books are now published by Tor, I think, so maybe that would have been an issue as well.

Once it was officially rejected, I submitted it to the main Stirling fanfiction site. It’s run by a friend of Stirling’s, one of his first readers, and she handed it off to two other folks who were more familiar with the Draka. They provided me with a couple of pages of great notes on how I could make the book more consistent with the Drakaverse.

And…I’ve not touched it since. I should, since the changes aren’t that big, and it would only take me a month or so to get it finished so at least the book would see the electronic light of day. I toyed with the idea of “Fifty Shades of Gray”-ing it; no, not sexing it up, you dirty-minded readers – but taking out the Draka references and converting it into a stand-alone alternate history novel.

But the Draka are just such damned fine villains! I couldn’t figure out how to take them out and still make the book work. All the alternate universe US people and events are influenced by the presence of the Draka, past and present.

So maybe I will make the changes and submit it to the fanfic site. At least that way people could read the thing. I learned a lot writing it, but I don’t know that it would be worth my while right now to write the sequels. And the bad guys do win in the end, dammit.

My second novel, not related in any way to the Draka book, is about half done and I got stalled. Not for lack of a plot line, or because I was unhappy with the characters, or any of the usual reasons writers stall out on a book. It’s because the physics keeps changing.

See, there’s a major plot point that involves the creation of, and control of, a micro-sized black hole. I was going to have it created in the Large Hadron Collider, and confined and carried off. Now I’m not even sure the LHC can make micro black holes, or if it can, if they exist long enough to capture them. This long-term search for the Higgs boson has caused several reevaluations of quantum physics, apparently. I’m no particle physicist, that’s for sure, but I’ve tried to read all the relevant polarizations of the concepts of a reality with at least eleven dimensions, how some could be “rolled up” and therefore not perceived, how string theory works, and a lot of associated stuff.

And my major plot idea is dissolving because of the physics. I could do some hand-waving and ignore the last couple of years of research that’s gone on since I started the book. I could do the science-fictiony thing and postulate some new force or discovery that would make my story work. I could ignore logic and go ahead anyway. I’d still like to make it sound at least a little bit plausible.

See, the story is really about a crisis and how a group of people handle a potentially dangerous situation that no one understands. There will be no cable-company employee who quickly writes a virus that will drop the defensive shields on an alien ship, and do it in twenty minutes on an old Macbook. There’s no one super-smart person who is the only one who sees the answer while everyone else acts like fools and gets in the way. There are super-smart people, because those are the ones you need when you are dealing with the real unknown, but in this case they have to work together, use each other’s strengths, and behave like adults should.

In other words, a completely implausibly situation, right?

I’m happy with the character mix, and their backstories. I liked where the plot was going, and how quickly it was getting there. I wasn’t having to pad anything to stretch out the dramatic tension.

But I don’t believe my own physics. Part of it involves “force fields.”

Force fields have been used in skiffy for nearly a hundred years. Call them what you will, but tractor beams, repulsor fields, defensive shields, containment shields, all of these things have one thing in common: so far as I know, we don’t know how to project any of them.

Electromagnetic fields, sure. But to do so, we usually need some kind of conductors, and those are physical structures. A magnetic field requires something to shape and contain it. Nobody can project a directed magnetic field over a long distance, in a confined beam, except Magneto.

If I’m wrong about this, for God’s sake tell me! I admit my physics training is severely lacking, but I just couldn’t bring myself to write space opera, where nobody worries about such things.

I need a confinement field for gravity. Nobody really understand gravity, except maybe Roger Penrose or Misner, Thorne and Wheeler. If Penrose understands it, then the rest of us don’t; he has a completely different view of how the universe is put together. But the little I understand of twistor theory doesn’t help with what I need.

Not to reveal too much, I need to be able to control a “beam” of gravity, from a micro black hole, and have the ability to point it in one direction, so it attracts to a specific point, but not omnidirectionally. I’m faking it by confining it in a sort of makeshift Faraday cage right now, but that won’t work as the story develops.

Maybe I should do the hand-waving, finish the book, and then figure out the physics. But I could miss a completely good plot device or seven if I don’t understand the physics first.

So – you see why novels don’t get finished. It’s not laziness, or lack of inspiration. The universe gets in the way!

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Avengers – Ensemble!

February 1, 2013

Avengers ENsembleToo good to not post…Thanks to Ren for passing it on. Are those cats or something in the cello section? And…HULK PLAY BASS!

 

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Travel by asteroid

November 15, 2012

David Hardy painting of an asteroid-based spaceship

For a long time scientists and science fiction writers have postulated using an asteroid as either an orbital base or a non-FTL starship. Books like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow use spacefaring asteroid ships because it appears to be a monumental problem to lift enough material out of Earth’s gravity well to build a starship from scratch. John Ringo’s Troy Rising series uses an asteroid, melted and inflated, as a fortress to defend Earth from aliens entering through a hyperspace gate.

SPOILER AHEAD! In fact, Ringo goes farther and, using an Orion-style nuclear bomb drive, turns his fortress into a mobile battle platform, taking it through the gate and to the battle.

I just finished Dr. Travis Taylor’s new book, A New American Space Plan, and I was struck by something that I never really considered much before. Maybe we can get to Mars using current, or near-future technology. NASA is now setting its sights on a mission to a Near-Earth Asteroid. (Or it was last I looked. NASA plans change every day.) Beyond that – let’s say we want to go to Jupiter – it’s going to be orders of magnitude more difficult. When the AE-35 antenna pointing unit failed in “2001” – OK, Hal did it, but still – they happened to have the parts or whatever to fix it. They didn’t have to, but were prepared to.

So let’s say we’ve got a Discovery-class ship, three crew in suspended animation, two minding the store on the Long Trip Out. Something breaks, or the classic Dramatic Meteor Impact happens and breaks something – something that is not available on the ship. We’re basically screwed. Don’t tell me 3D printing technology will save us. It won’t build a microchip for a really, really, long time. And a whole antenna, say 20 feet in diameter? Probably not. We don’t have Ringo’s fabbers, and if we have to wait for those, we won’t go to Jupiter for a long while.

We could do it by what Robert Zubrin, author of the “Mars Direct” concepts, derisively called the “Battlestar Galactica” approach: a gigantic fleet of ships, traveling together for mutual aid and protection. But if lifting one ship’s parts out of the gravity well is hard, lifting 20 is a lot harder.

So let’s see…maybe we can grab a Near-Earth Asteroid, bolt a bunch of stuff on it, drill it out or blow it out with nukes, and build a habitat inside. Maybe not for hundreds of people – let’s say, 50 or so. That’s a lot of lifting but not as much as the other alternatives. Ion drive, solar sail, Orion or Orion-derived nuclear pulse drive – any of them would probably work. It would just take a while to go someplace.

Look at it as if you are driving your motor home cross country and have to take your machine shop along because nobody stocks parts for your vehicle. The bigger the vehicle, and the more people, the more likely it is you can fabricate what you need. And most of the mass is nickel-iron asteroid, which is also providing a lot of radiation shielding. Instead of thinking of a trip to Jupiter as taking a few years, maybe you’ll take decades. Running a closed environmental system like that isn’t easy, but it’s easier than a lot of the alternatives. Eventually we’ll have some better drives, and we can get around the system faster.

Has anyone ever calculated how much toilet paper is needed for a five-year trip?

I don’t see this happening in the next 10 years, but it could be done a lot sooner than most every other idea I’ve heard for deep space interplanetary travel as long as we lack a superdrive. Those are based mostly on magic and good intentions right now.

Once we know how to do that, we can build bigger ones and send people to the stars. By then we should have a pretty good idea which ones have planets we could live on.

I wasn’t a fan of the NASA asteroid mission scenario until now. Now I hope we can get there. We won’t just be learning how the solar system is put together, but how to build a better spaceship.

A pity, though. I kind of like the Blake’s 7 Liberator as a spaceship design. Of course, it was built by aliens…

Blake’s 7 “Liberator” – lots cooler than flying a hunk of rock!