Thursday, March 17, 2011

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum


Meta raised its head again, in a big way, in discussion of the last couple of posts on FTL. This should not be a surprise, because the rather problematic physics of FTL brings us very close to the boundary line between science fiction and science fantasy. (Including the question of whether it is valid to distinguish them at all.)

The perspective of this blog from its beginning has been that SF is a subgenre of Romance, a term now narrowed down by marketers to a different subgenre of itself. Romance in all its subgenres is distinct from 'realistic' fiction, which is largely why academic literary criticism has been rather nonplussed by it. Realism, in this context, is mostly about psychological realism in characterization, not Realism [TM] in technology, physics, or other aspects of the setting.

Yet that latter kind of Realism [TM] is itself a very relative thing, and arguably amounts largely to a stylistic flourish. Take for example the question of space warfare, a subject that probably drew many of you to this blog.

There is, to be blunt, precious little 'realistic' about clashes of armadas in deep space. Half a century of space travel combined with enormous military budgets has shown mainly that the world's major militaries have zero interest in space armadas. The US never deployed any manned space warcraft, unless you count 'Blue Shuttle' (which the USAF never wanted). The Soviet-era Russians dabbled a bit, but soon lost interest.

For that matter, from a genuinely realistic perspective there is not much basis for any of the familiar space tropes that we know and mostly love here. The exploration and exploitation of space, as of the ocean floor, is much better suited to robotic or remote-controlled vehicles and systems. Deep space does add the complication of light lag: Teleoperators at JPL in Pasadena can't guide machines on Mars in real time. But this is only a limited constraint, and - let's be honest - there are cheaper and more convenient workarounds than sending hundred-ton human habs to Mars, at enormous cost, plus the even more enormous cost of bringing them and their crews back safely.

Any number of unforeseen circumstances might change all this, and provide some McGuffinite that justifies extensive human space travel. We have discussed such possibilities before on this blog, and you can safely guess that we will discuss them again.


Stories about space travel, on the other hand, require no such hypothetical McGuffinite. It is sufficient that space travel is Cool. But even fictional space travel is subject to the willing suspension of disbelief.

How disbelief gets suspended, and in what ways, is in fact arbitrary and genre-dependent. Practically all fiction, including realistic fiction in the conventional sense, expects us to take its characters as people, not figments of the author's imagination. Even traditional literary criticism joins in this pretense, talking about Achilles or Elizabeth Bennet as if they were actual people. Experimental fiction that overtly admits to being fictional is arguably 'metafiction,' while time-honored framing devices for fantastic fiction, such as the old lost manuscript, have long fallen out of active use, and would be evoked today only for retro flavor.

I have an aesthetic bias in favor of the trappings of Realism [TM], both in the technical details of spaceships and the social details of why someone is paying to have them built, which is why Rocketpunk Manifesto belabors all of those questions about why people might actually go into space in large numbers.

It is important to emphasize that this is precisely an aesthetic bias, and my biases can be amazingly idiosyncratic and narrow. For example, spaceships that look like the Navajo missile of the 1950s are both coolific and Realistic [TM] in my eye, while spaceships that look like a V-2 with wings look corny, dated, and implausible. Never mind that they are both equally genuine design concepts, little more than a decade apart and both more than half a century old - or even that one evolved directly from the other. One looks right to me, while the other doesn't.

Many of my SF biases are reflected by the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy, from my old static website. Even though it is largely a snark at convention space-fiction tropes, fundamentally that is still how my tastes run. I neither apologize for those tastes nor defend them. These tropes are a perfectly legitimate branch of SF as it has developed over the past century or so, but by no means the only perfectly legitimate branch.

From one perspective, science fiction itself is obsolete - a creation of the industrial revolution, an inherently transitional phase when visions the pre-industrial world could scarcely have imagined became possible to think about, even if some may never be possible to achieve. It is really, really hard today to come up with SF ideas that have never been written before.

On the other hand, SF has permanently expanded the frontiers of Romance - including the revitalization of its bookstore neighbor and rival, fantasy, along with a host of spinoff subgenres. None of it is realistic, but much of it thrives on the artful faking of realism.


Discuss.



The launch images of the SM-64 Navajo come from an aerospace history blog. Compare to the ramjet shuttle at the lower right of the RM logo image above.

220 comments:

1 – 200 of 220   Newer›   Newest»
Raymond said...

A posse ad esse.

Mangaka2170 said...

I agree with Rick, here. Science fiction is exactly that: fiction. What distinguishes science fiction from other fiction genres is that it makes use (one way or another, if even marginally) of science to depict the fantastic. Characters travel to whole new worlds, the past, or the future, using mechanical devices or natural phenomena structured around some form of science, no matter how implausible.

Regardless of what is used in-universe, it is the imagination that fuels the ships and worlds and makes them seem real to the audience, and no matter how scientifically inaccurate it may be, the audience expects certain things of science fiction based on their own experiences, and they are generally willing to sacrifice the logical implications of events in the work in order to experience a story that's close enough to their expectations so they can relate to it, so it has meaning to them.

I'm not entirely sure that made any sense at all, but it's what I've got right now.

Raymond said...

I should clarify - it's not that I insist on a skein of possibility between here and the story, just that I place a premium on it.

Tim said...

Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone!

There's nothing to disagree with here, really. Some people like their "science fiction" with dragons and laser-swords and magicical powers (call it psionics, so we know it's "scientific".) But I think that most of readers (or at least the commenters) of this blog are more interested in the "harder" end of the scale, possibly going as far as dismissing commonly accepted bending of the laws of physics (like FTL anything) as pure hokum. Even if we are writing a good old fashioned adventure in space, we want to stay as close to the understood laws of science as possible. Whether we have scientific investigation at the center of our plot or space ship battles, we still want everything to at least SOUND plausible, or at the very least not be obviously WRONG.

The problem is that if most of your understanding of scientfic law comes from TV and movie sci-fi, you're in trouble. Other than 2001, I think the new BSG is the only SF show/film that even takes Newton a little bit seriously. Hint: if you turn off the engines in space, your ship doesn't roll to a stop... In fact, I'd like to see one show or movie where a massive starship arrives at its destination after a lengthy journey with its engines FACING the direction its going...

Geoffrey S H said...

As regards aesthetics... I've always wanted to imagine romantic notions... but with a realistic look.

What do I mean by this?

If we wereto have massive million ton crewed freigt and passnager craft, with troop trasnports, mobile spaceelevators and war craft, what would thye look like as ralistically as possible. Even if crewed modules are innefficient uses of mass... what might a massive "space battleship" the sioze of the executer look like in a "realistic" sense, i.e.: with heat radiatorsan ddecks with "down" being towards the thrust, radar dishes, etc. This was partly my inrtention in the plantetary warfare thread, but we never reall got there (i.e.: if battleships on the water were feasible, what might the look like realisticall if designed b a galatic empire? What about tanks, cars? etc etc etc). I'm tired of seeing designs in franchises such as star waers, admiring the hardware and commenting "ooohh, a realistic element there, wonder if it was deliberate?" and not see an real attempt at realism in design. Crewed or not, those astral dreadnoughts and star destroyers ought to have some decent hab modules to contain the planetary assault legions of doom.....

P.s:itshighl ironic that Sea Quest DSV was seen as a rip off of star trek, when the environment was so much better for some trekkie tropes (stealth in space, nearby colonies, domed colonies, fighters that have amedium to work in -though still nonsensical-, etc ad infinitum).

Anonymous said...

I love fiction that fills me with a sense of awe, or that makes me look at a daily phenomenon in a new light. A story that gives me fuel for day dreams. Characters that could have been me, had I only been born in a different universe. For me that has always been science fiction. I can look up at the night sky, and the stars become not just points of lights, but Solar Empires, each with a thousand ships.

I look at Mars and see Barsoom, flashing blades, fair damsels and flying battleships.

I go to work, not as a mundane cog, but as an Armscomp Tech aboard the ECS Norway. And I don't have a sinus infection, I am Jump sick. Worn out from chasing Mazziani Pirates half-way to Sol and back.

I want to read the type of stories that make me want to live there, or at least visit.

-Free Hatani

Thucydides said...

I would say it is all about expectations.

Hornblower in Space is a decent and well worn trope, really updating a familier story in a new setting. A talented enough writer could probably do the Iliad in Space (or perhaps the Odyssey is more apt here), but aside from the setting and maybe a few in jokes or puns, isn't really providing much new for the well rounded reader.

This is probably as personal and idyosicratic as Rick's likes and dislikes, but what makes science fiction for me is how the mind blowing concepts are incorporated in the plot. If Mr Arrow is simply letting out the hypersail on the way to Treasure Planet, then I think I've read this somewhere before. IF Mr Arrow tells the Captain they cannot set a straight course to Treasure Planet because they will create a CTC and be destroyed, and the plot now revolves around how the Captain and the loyal crew members make one work around while Long John Silver's scurvy crew attempt to confuse the AI so they can carry out another plan (and the unexpected consequences that arrive from this) we are moving closer to "real" SF territory. Greg Bear's works like "Blood Music" or Eon are full fledged SF by my definition.

Brian said...

Wish we had more Hard SF movies. Avatar is the latest one. I heard Ridley Scott (Alien, w/Sigourney Weaver)) might be making a movie of The Forever War. Said book, which I read recently, is not 100% pure Hard SF because it has "tachyon drive", which, while not FTL, does allow you to maintain 20+ g for weeks. It also has wormholes, or phenomenon similar to wormholes, although they are naturally occurring.

One movie I think would be cool to see, movie and/or TV series, would be a western set on Mars! Basically like Firefly (the fox series), except it would be set in our Solar System, and it would depict people floating if the ship is not spinning/accelerating, and no FTL or sound in space. :)

--Brian

Brian said...

btw check out this article on Metallic Hydrogen as rocket fuel:

http://iopscience.iop.org/1742-6596/215/1/012194/

I wonder if it could be used in a fusion rocket??? Presumably it would be a way to store a LOT more hydrogen in the same volume as normal (gaseous) hydrogen.

--Brian

nqdp said...

I think that one of the distinguishing points of hard SF is when an author creates a new technology--preferably, though not necessarily, plausible--and then writes a story that considers all possible outcomes of his new tech. The best examples of this that I can think of are the works of Clarke and Crichton. This could happen in a fantasy setting, too, I suppose (Eärendil discovering how to make his ship sail on aether or something), but for aesthetic reasons I tend to stick towards tech, not magic. I may be in some disagreement with other readers on this blog because I don't always demand that tech or magic be realistic--only that once it's established, it is treated rigorously and consistently. Women chanting in Welsh is great, but can we at least nail down how fluent she has to be, how loud she has to chant, and how many ly/hr she can move the ship?

The books I generally prefer are the ones that respect science and internal consistency but aren't enslaved to it. My favorite book is Red Mars. It respects science, but it's also not about science. I wouldn't call it hard SF because it doesn't deal directly with all the implications of new technology. At the same time, the tech in the background is consistent, so the story leans towards the harder side of drama / future history.

-nqdp

Raymond said...

Brian:

Avatar was only hard SF until they dipped below the cloud cover on Pandora. I'm sorry, islands wouldn't float no matter how high-temperature a superconductor was involved. And really, magnetic interference all over the place, and somehow they find a way to remote-pilot the avatars?

With a few modifications, it could've been much harder:

- No floating islands. Tall mountain ranges, fine - that part doesn't affect the plot.

- Have the avatars piloted, not by remote, but by the same kind of mind-copying Cameron put into the end anyways. With a (hinted to be) planetary intelligence and a world full of room-temp superconductors, this would be at least vaguely possible (SQUIDs for everyone!). Those sensory deprivation chambers are so you don't make extra memories while your copy is running around...

- Following from the above, have Cripple!Jake forced to diverge from Blue!Jake. Would've made a much more interesting character bit than what we got.

- All the rest of the fauna followed a common gross morphology: six limbs, four eyes, neural socket. Except the elves. (Sorry, Na'vi. See Our Elves Are Better on the Evil Website.) Instead of making them magical wonderful hippie people (and not even reflective of nor respectful to the Native peoples they represented), make them a constructed race - made by the planetary intelligence to interface with the new arrivals.

- Season to taste.

As far as metallic hydrogen goes, if we could figure out how to produce it halfway cheaply it would make a hell of a rocket fuel. It would not, however, do anything for fusion reactors, whose problems are getting the reactions to happen at all, not the density of the reaction mass.

Anonymous said...

What I look for in fiction (any fiction), is a compelling story, sympathytic characters, who are doing things that are logically consistent in regards to the story. In science fiction, I look for two other things (not necessarily in the same story); 1)an examination of how a new tech or scientific principle has changed peoples lives and how the story's characters have intigrated it into their lives; 2) the exploration of a contempory social problem or issue dressed up in a future or alt-universe setting, so that you can present the issue without the emotional baggage of discussing it in a present-day setting.

Now, as far as reading or watching sci fi: I get distracted by "flaws" in the spaceships depicted; no radiator fins, flying in space like there's air for your control surfaces, sound in vacume, slowing down and stopping when you turn your engines off, asymetrical designs or engines thrusting through someplace other than the centerline, ect...

"that ship looks cool...of course it would tumble as soon as its engines lit up and it'd melt when it shot off its guns..."

Still, if the story paints a mental picture and you loose track of time, then it has done it's job, regardless of the silly rayguns, nonsensical rocket engines, or that every planet looks just like the American Mid West...

Ferrell

Mangaka2170 said...

@Brian: It's not a movie or TV series, but would this be anything like what you're looking for?

Geoffrey S H said...

"I'm sorry, islands wouldn't float no matter how high-temperature a superconductor was involved."

May I ask why? Please don't sa "because no superconducters would be powerful enough"- that's the point. As regards the magnetic iterfearence, it was only in certain locations- so perhaps the sensor packages could be defeated, but the avatar links were perhaps a stronger signal? Mh.

As regards flora and fauna, everything having six legs seems non sensical. Whatever we may think of the space smurffs idea, planetary wildlife would not all share the same physical features. DNA and egentic code yes, but not features... which is why I am willing to tolerate the notion of bipeds among sexpeds. Really, there was simply not enough thought put in to make all the creatures different, but creating a completely alien ecosstem would be impossible- we would just see the same old sky-whale and aerial jellyfish cliches. Any novel I have read with an alien life form, usually concentraes on one rather than millions, which does ruin the realism for me abit.

As regards realism in design, just some radiators, radar dishes, correctl aligned crew decks and knowledge of orbital mchanics is all I ask- it doesn't have to be the ISS2, and can look more like the Executor than Souz. It would be a start at least.

Raymond said...

Geoffrey:

"May I ask why? Please don't say "because no superconductors would be powerful enough"- that's the point."

It's about shear strength, actually - an island would tear itself apart pretty quickly, probably when it first goes airborne. Once airborne, it'll get buffeted by prevailing winds and magnetic gradients, and collide with mountains and other flying islands. Either way it'll be shaken or pounded into rubble.

"Whatever we may think of the space smurfs idea, planetary wildlife would not all share the same physical features."

Why not? Terrestrial fauna does (at least the land-based ones). Mammals almost universally have four limbs, a head with two eyes and our respiratory equipment, and at least a vestigial tail. Insects generally have six legs, compound eyes, and identifiable head, thorax and abdomen sections.

Gross morphology usually gets fixed before large-scale diversification. That's actually one of the things about Pandora they got right - except for the blue elves, which look like they share no common genetic heritage with anything on the planet.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Gross morphology usually gets fixed before large-scale diversification. That's actually one of the things about Pandora they got right - except for the blue elves, which look like they share no common genetic heritage with anything on the planet."

Well, they do (quite conveniently) have that nervous system interface thingamabobber.

Tony said...

WRT science fiction being an inheritor of the Romantic tradition, it's actually kind of counterintuitive. Romanticism was a rebellion against Rationalism, intended to reclaim the supremacy of the human spirit over nature. Of course, SF gets around this contradiction by almost formulaicly requiring the human spirit to triumph over nature. The plot complications are just speculative.

Which is why laser-like focus on technology and physical science strikes me as unadulterated wank. It misses the point that Romance is about people. Avoiding any obvious howlers in the science and tech are good enough for me.

Turbo10k said...

Cramming mail with more rocketpunk posts!

Bryan said...

Reymond wrote: "Insects generally have six legs, compound eyes, and identifiable head, thorax and abdomen sections.

Gross morphology usually gets fixed before large-scale diversification"

You've being very mammal-specific here. In reality, earthly lifeforms are much more mutable than you make out.

Take your example of insects - it is, in a word, wrong. The basic insect "genetic recipe" sets up an organism with 12 appendages - 6 legs, 4 wings, and 2 antennae (the formation of these are controlled by the same genes). However, insects are far more variable than that. In flies, two of the wings have evolved into sensitory organs called halters. Ants have lost both sets of wings completely. One paracytic fly (forget its name, it preys on termites) has lost its wings, halters, and antennae.

And those same genes control the formation of your limbs as well.

Vertebrates are equally malleable. We're all built on the same basic plan, but loosing limbs (snakes, whales, manatees, kiwis), tails (us), eyes (various cave lizards) and other features is rather common.

The idea of having four-limbed aliens, on a world consisting largely of 6-legged animals, would be totally within the norm of earthly evolution. Of course the extent to which earthly evolution can be applied to alien worlds is debatable. Much of the flexibility in earthly life comes from the segmented nature of our morphology.

KraKon said...

On topic:
I think the hardest thing to deal with when trying to write modern SF is finding out that EVERY idea or new application of previous ideas has been come up with, used, reused and thrown in the 'boring staple trope' can. If anyone here visits sfconsim-l, you'll notice that the most innovative concepts I came with (well-regulated simulated reality, the link between FTL, cracking reality and a quick rewrite of religions once their founding beliefs are shaken up) have all been used, reused and thrown in the old trope trash can!
For realism, my objective is for any writing I do to withstand a google search of all concepts involved. Mag-orion? Sure, it exists, and can do that and that. Fine, I'll continue reading.
It is a bit harder than when you just hope the reader suspends his/her belief for your story just like they did for SW or ST without actually rewriting SW/ST and handing it to them with a different cover image...

OT: Time to cram more e-mails into my full box. Out of 3k mails so far, I believe Rocketpunk Manifesto takes up around 80-90% of said mails.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"Well, they do (quite conveniently) have that nervous system interface thingamabobber."

Only the Na'vi, though, of all the predators on the planet. One would think that if such neural interfaces were common, so to would be their use by other wildlife.

"Which is why laser-like focus on technology and physical science strikes me as unadulterated wank. It misses the point that Romance is about people."

Romance is about people, but I'd dispute that science fiction is necessarily confined to Romance. I think strains of both Romance and Rationalism have been part of SF from the beginning. Jules Verne kept calling his stories Scientific Romances, even though they were packed with technical details. HG Wells used less of the techspeak, but many of his stories were still built around ideas more than people.

Brian:

"You're being very mammal-specific here."

You're right, I probably am. Apologies. Should've kept my comments confined to land mammals, for starters.

"The basic insect "genetic recipe" sets up an organism with 12 appendages - 6 legs, 4 wings, and 2 antennae (the formation of these are controlled by the same genes)."

I didn't actually know the antennae were formed by the same genes as the legs (although I probably should have). Consider me suitably corrected.

"he idea of having four-limbed aliens, on a world consisting largely of 6-legged animals, would be totally within the norm of earthly evolution."

If it were just the limbs, it wouldn't be so glaring. But losing two limbs and two eyes, changing the jaw structure dramatically, and in general resembling the recently-arrived aliens much more than anything on your native planet?

Raymond said...

Sorry Bryan, I just realized I mistook you for Brian and misspelled your name. Deepest apologies. (My first name has the same spelling as yours, so I should bloody well know better.)

- Raymond

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Only the Na'vi, though, of all the predators on the planet. One would think that if such neural interfaces were common, so to would be their use by other wildlife."

Huh? It's because the Na'vi have the interface that they can ride all the animals they do. They hook it up to the animal's corresponding interface and exert control through it.

"Romance is about people, but I'd dispute that science fiction is necessarily confined to Romance. I think strains of both Romance and Rationalism have been part of SF from the beginning. Jules Verne kept calling his stories Scientific Romances, even though they were packed with technical details. HG Wells used less of the techspeak, but many of his stories were still built around ideas more than people."

I'd have to dispute you right back. We actually have a very good test case for the argument: the short story "The Colde Equations" (TCE hereinafter for convenience). TCE was explicitly written to prove that SF was a literature of ideas (and hard, unforgiving ideas at that). It was specifically constructed and crafted to subvert the contemporary SF reader's expectation that the Hero would figure out how to win in the end. The big problem is that the most rational criticisms of TCE's premise are based on what humans should have done to avoid the tragic resolution. Even more damningly, aerospace engineering practice in 1954 (when the story was first published) already would have institutued most or all of the safeguards suggested by these criticisms. So the SF genre's supposed big litmus test proof of idea-orientation was both out of time at publication and out of place within the genre.

Yet the genre didn't fall apart. It just kept on going as a species of Romance. Even the horribly awful we're-all-doomed, environmental disaster SF coming out of Great Britain in the Sixties and Seventies still had people at its center.

WRT the technical detail of some SF stories, well, okay...and? Romance has always had its share of stories where authors were absorbed by accuracy of background detail. And though we discussed it previously in the context of SF, the detail/flow balance is really an argument about how Romances in general should be written.

Bryan said...

Crap, first attempt to reply was lost. Sorry if this appears 2X.

Raymond wrote; I didn't actually know the antennae were formed by the same genes as the legs

Yep, and the homologs in us humans controls the formation of our limbs as well (with some changes). Mutating these genes in insects is pretty interesting - mutating antennapedia leads to a fly with legs in place of its antenna. Mutating the same genes in us is less interesting - in embryos it leads to malformation and spontanious abortion. In adults, it causes cancer.

If it were just the limbs, it wouldn't be so glaring. But losing two limbs and two eyes, changing the jaw structure dramatically, and in general resembling the recently-arrived aliens much more than anything on your native planet?
Other than the last point, I don't think any of the rest is all that unusual. The jaw's shape (and skull shape in general) is quite malleable - in less than 50 years we've turned a normal-ish dog into the short-snouted bulldog. Single base-pair mutations in humans can lead to drastic changes in our skull shape. To evolution, our skulls are very much clay.

Loss of eyes and limbs is also well within the realm of possibility - and occurs with some degree of regularity in vertebrates.

The later point is 100% valid; the probability of looking human would be quite small. But its a movie - and audiences wouldn't have as easy an emotional connection with an intelligent alien than resembled a cross between a rottweiler and a brine shrimp.

Luke said...

I'm sorry, islands wouldn't float no matter how high-temperature a superconductor was involved.

The physics of floating mountains works something like this. A superconductor excludes magnetic fields from its interior due to induced currents flowing over the surface (the Meissner effect). In a potential, an object will move in the direction that lowers its potential energy (and gains kinetic energy in the process). In this case, we have two potential energies to worry about - gravitational potential energy and the potential energy of the magnetic field which is excluded from the the volume of the mountain.

The gravitational potential energy is E_g = rho V g h, for mountain volume V, average density rho, height of the center of mass h above your reference point, and acceleration due to gravity of g. Changing height by an amount dh changes the gravitational potential by an amount
dE_g = rho V g dh.

The energy stored in a magnetic field of strength B in a volume V is E_m = V B^2/(2 mu_0), where mu_0 is the magnetic constant. Note that if B is uniform in space, there is no change in potential energy and there is no magnetic force to move the mountain. If the field changes by dB, the change in magnetic energy is
dE_m = dB V B/mu_0.

The mountain will float when the change in magnetic energy is countered by the change in gravitational energy. So to float we need dE_g = dE_m, and thus
dB/dh = rho g mu_0 / B.

The condition for floating depends not only on the field but on the
rate at which the field changes. If we take H as the thickness of the
mountain, then for an average field [B] over the mountains volume the
maximum field gradient is approximately 2[B]/H (assuming a field of
2[B] at the base and 0 at the top). We can now solve for [B]
[B] = sqrt(mu_0 rho g H/2)
While this step is clearly approximate, it should suffice for an order of magnitude estimate.

Assuming rho = 3000 kg/m^3 and g=10 m/s^2,
H = 1000 m -> [B] ~ 4 tesla
H = 10 m -> [B] ~ 0.4 tesla
H = 0.1 m -> [B] ~ 0.04 tesla

These are minimum values - if the field does not drop to nearly zero
over the distance scale of the rock/boulder/mountain, you need a
higher field. This also does not take into account complications such
as flux pinning, magnetic flux lines penetrating type II
superconductors at high fields, and the interactions of the fields
from the induced currents of nearby mountains (which could, in principle, move the result a bit either way).

It's about shear strength, actually - an island would tear itself apart pretty quickly, probably when it first goes airborne. Once airborne, it'll get buffeted by prevailing winds and magnetic gradients, and collide with mountains and other flying islands. Either way it'll be shaken or pounded into rubble.

Mountains are already buffeted by prevailing winds and they hold up for geologic ages. Collisions could be avoided with flux pinning (which are quite significant in the levitation of modern sintered high T_c superconductors), which tends to hold levitating superconductors in place rather than allowing freely floating levitation.

I am not trying to be an apologist for Avatar - it was good escapist fun (flying dino dragons! Roger Dean-like landscapes! Ducted fan flyers! Giant fighting robots! What's not to like?) but hardly hard science all around. I am just trying to puts some physical limits on the effects depicted if such things were to happen in real life.

Luke said...

Bryan:

The basic insect "genetic recipe" sets up an organism with 12 appendages - 6 legs, 4 wings, and 2 antennae (the formation of these are controlled by the same genes).

Don't forget the moving parts of the mouth (mandibles and all) which are made up of modified legs.

Luke said...

Raymond:

It would not, however, do anything for fusion reactors, whose problems are getting the reactions to happen at all, not the density of the reaction mass.

Density does help for ICF. One of the problems with ICF is that when the fuel is in equilibrium with its radiation field at normal densities, there is more energy stored in the radiation than can be released by complete fusion of the fuel. Thus, you need to compress the stuff to reduce its volume and thus the amount of radiant energy in the fuel pellet at any given temperature so that you can get a net energy gain. So you need very high compression ratios. If you can start off with something denser, you can compress it more before you need to start worrying so much about implosion instabilities.

Some researchers have claimed to have found ultra high density deuterium as a metastable Rydberg solid (ultra high density as in 130,000 g/cm^3). I am pretty skeptical of this claim, but if true it would be quite useful for fusion - there's no need to compress it, just zap it with a fast laser pulse to heat it up and away it goes.

Raymond said...

Luke:

WRT floating mountains:
- by "buffeted by wind" I was (poorly) referring to airborne mountains being blown into each other or grounded ones. Would the flux pinning effects (which I hadn't considered) be sufficient to counter that?
- as for shear forces et al, I was assuming non-uniform distribution of the superconductors (the Unobtainium was depicted as a typical ore), and thus the forces exerted.

WRT metallic hydrogen and fusion:
- I should've specified that I was referring to MCF, not ICF, as MCF is much more suited to spaceflight (at least based off the collection of papers I've read through, which could be misleading).
- for ICF, isn't the required density another 3 orders of mag higher than that claimed metastable metallic deuterium? (My understanding was that if the temperature is reduced, the density must be increased by the same factor to achive a full fusion burn.)
- I keep hearing claims that metallic hydrogen would be a room-temp superconductor - would that be true of metallic deuterium as well? Would it be a useful property for a fusion target?

Raymond said...

Bryan:

"But its a movie - and audiences wouldn't have as easy an emotional connection with an intelligent alien than resembled a cross between a rottweiler and a brine shrimp."

I know - I think Cameron missed an opportunity to use that to the story's advantage, and strengthen the subtext in the process. Humans don't relate to a whole planet very well - a planetary intelligence (or a filmmaker, for that matter) would be well served to create some form of interface which we could relate to better, in order to communicate properly.

Raymond said...

I pissed off the denizens of the warp again, so apologies for repost.


Luke:

WRT floating mountains:
- by "buffeted by wind" I was (poorly) referring to airborne mountains being blown into each other or grounded ones. Would the flux pinning effects (which I hadn't considered) be sufficient to counter that?
- as for shear forces et al, I was assuming non-uniform distribution of the superconductors (the Unobtainium was depicted as a typical ore), and thus the forces exerted.

WRT metallic hydrogen and fusion:
- I should've specified that I was referring to MCF, not ICF, as MCF is much more suited to spaceflight (at least based off the collection of papers I've read through, which could be misleading).
- for ICF, isn't the required density another 3 orders of mag higher than that claimed metastable metallic deuterium? (My understanding was that if the temperature is reduced, the density must be increased by the same factor to achive a full fusion burn.) Would a metastable metallic hydrogen isotope maintain its density for long enough to fuse?
- I keep hearing claims that metallic hydrogen would be a room-temp superconductor - would that be true of metallic deuterium as well? Would it be a useful property for a fusion target?

Tony said...

Raymond:

"I keep hearing claims that metallic hydrogen would be a room-temp superconductor - would that be true of metallic deuterium as well? Would it be a useful property for a fusion target?"

Wikipedia says that that has been theorized. The problem is achieving metastability of metallic hydrogen at around STP. And if you applied an electric current...

Raymond said...

Tony:

I'm mostly wondering about the usefulness of superconductivity in the fusion target itself - the expected volatility would, I'm sure, exclude it from many of the uses we would have for very-high-temperature superconductors.

Luke said...

Raymond:

by "buffeted by wind" I was (poorly) referring to airborne mountains being blown into each other or grounded ones. Would the flux pinning effects (which I hadn't considered) be sufficient to counter that?

Flux pinning would act to prevent this. In Avatar, for example, it looks like many of the rocks are pinned along the same field lines, so they wouldn't drift into each other very readily. Also, loops of magnetic flux pinned through adjacent rocks would act to keep the rocks separated. Whether the magnitude of the effect is sufficient to overcome aerodynamic forces of the winds depends on the amount and strength of the pinned flux, the wind speed, air density, exposed area of the rocks, and the coefficient of aerodynamic drag of the rocks.

I should've specified that I was referring to MCF, not ICF, as MCF is much more suited to spaceflight (at least based off the collection of papers I've read through, which could be misleading).

I would say whichever one we can eventually get to work is the one that is most suitable for spaceflight - because it is the one that actually works! Some spacecraft examples, such as Project Daedalus and Project Icarus, use ICF (although highly optimistic and speculative versions of ICF).

for ICF, isn't the required density another 3 orders of mag higher than that claimed metastable metallic deuterium? (My understanding was that if the temperature is reduced, the density must be increased by the same factor to achieve a full fusion burn.) Would a metastable metallic hydrogen isotope maintain its density for long enough to fuse?

Target densities for ICF are on the order of 400 g/cm^3. I have seen claims that metastable Rydberg deuterium is claimed to have 130,000 g/cm^3 - certainly good enough!

Typically what you want to do with ICF is compress the fuel while heating it as little as possible (heating hakes it harder to compress) and then at maximum compression heat the fuel to initiate a thermonuclear burn. Whatever version of hydrogen you start out with doesn't really matter once you compress it and heat it - the combustion wave sweeps though it and either burns or blows it apart no matter what it was originally made of.

I keep hearing claims that metallic hydrogen would be a room-temp superconductor - would that be true of metallic deuterium as well?

If you are talking about normal metallic hydrogen that happens to have an atomic mass of 2 - probably (if it is superconductive at all, that is). There is an isotope effect that alters the superconductive properties of classic (low T_c) superconductors so you might see some differences in the transition temperature, for example.

As for the ultra-high density Rydberg solid deuterium, I have no idea.

Would it be a useful property for a fusion target?

I don't see how it would be. Maybe for levitating the fuel pellet in the first place, but once the shock waves start propagating through the pellet it will lose those superconductive properties pretty quickly (also over the time scales we are considering the conductivity of the plasma is low enough that there will not be a lot of difference between the plasma and a superconductor - you are going to see magnetic screening and flux pinning and other stuff anyway).

Tony said...

Raymond:

"I'm mostly wondering about the usefulness of superconductivity in the fusion target itself - the expected volatility would, I'm sure, exclude it from many of the uses we would have for very-high-temperature superconductors."

I'm thinking that an ICF fuel pellet would be driven past metallic conditions before what happens in that state made much difference.

Raymond said...

Luke:

- Were your calculations of the floating mountains based on the entire rock mass being superconductive?

- The main concern of ICF propulsion was the size and mass of the laser drivers required. Would that superdense Rydberg deuterium allow much of a reduction in driver power?

Tony:

"I'm thinking that an ICF fuel pellet would be driven past metallic conditions before what happens in that state made much difference."

That's what I assumed, but I wanted to make sure before I ruled it out completely.

"I'd have to dispute you right back.[...]"

I want to make a proper response to this, which will have to wait until I can get home and check through my library. I think we may be talking past each other again.

Luke said...

Raymond:

Were your calculations of the floating mountains based on the entire rock mass being superconductive?

Not necessarily. You just need sufficient superconductivity to generate screening currents that significantly reduce the field strength inside the rock. For example, if a thin film at the surface of the rock were superconductive but the inside were just normal granite, you would have the same effect as if the entire rock were superconductive. Superconductive grains scattered throughout the rock may suffice, as long as they are dense enough to provide a reasonable facsimile of a surface screening current.

The main concern of ICF propulsion was the size and mass of the laser drivers required. Would that superdense Rydberg deuterium allow much of a reduction in driver power?

Without the need for compression, the reduction in laser power would be considerable. Rather than megajoule-class driver beams, you would need an ultrafast pulsed laser of much less total energy - just enough to heat a spot on the fuel up to temperatures of around 15 keV.

If ultra dense Rydberg deuterium is real, you probably wouldn't call laser-induced fusion of this stuff ICF, there is no inertial confinement after all. The laser beam is more of a lighter beam than a driver beam. It has much in common with fast ignition methods of ICF, but you keep the fast ignition while leaving out the inertial confinement.

Tony said...

Luke:

"If ultra dense Rydberg deuterium is real, you probably wouldn't call laser-induced fusion of this stuff ICF, there is no inertial confinement after all. The laser beam is more of a lighter beam than a driver beam. It has much in common with fast ignition methods of ICF, but you keep the fast ignition while leaving out the inertial confinement."

Of course the energy required to create ultra-dense deuterium would probly render the overall cycle inefficient...

Luke said...

Tony:

Of course the energy required to create ultra-dense deuterium would probly render the overall cycle inefficient...

Well, my current guess is that the observations of ultra dense Rydberg deuterium are just wishful thinking, experimental noise, or mis-interpretation of other phenomena. I will believe it when it is reliably repeated by several other labs. Until then, it will be extremely inefficient since it doesn't exist at all ...

Still, if you want to use this for your allowed one big handwave, go ahead as long as you can weave an engaging story.

From what I remember of what I read, the stuff is supposed to form spontaneously once you put deuterium in a Rydberg atom state. Since this takes less than 13.6 eV per atom, and fusion of deuterium yields about 5,500,000 eV per two atoms, you could be quite inefficient in the process of making the stuff and still get a net positive yield. Whether you believe this or not is up to you ...

Tony said...

Luke:

"Whether you believe this or not is up to you ..."

I'm always one for conservative engineering assumptions. If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.

Tony said...

And, oh yeah...it's not just the state change of the deuterium that has to be powered, it's the extraction form water feedstock as well. I know fusion advocates claim that can all be done under the umbrella of generated power, but I'm not sold.

Raymond said...

"Without the need for compression, the reduction in laser power would be considerable. Rather than megajoule-class driver beams, you would need an ultrafast pulsed laser of much less total energy - just enough to heat a spot on the fuel up to temperatures of around 15 keV."

In which case, my earlier comment to Brian quite possibly stands corrected.

Thucydides said...

Using Earth as an example, land creatures evolved from a particular species of fish, which explains the four limbs, two eyes and tail body plan; looking at the layout of wrists and ankle bones across species also shows many similarities.

This is probably the source of the complaint against the blue elves; the body plan of every other species is based on a common ancestor, so unless you can convince us the blue elves are a different order rather than species (and where is the rest of their order?), they are unconvincing, to say the least.

Avatar is much closer to the Hornblower in Space trope than my idea of SF; look closely and it is Pocahontas in Spaaaaace! Avatar II is going to be spectacular; the mining company comes back and nukes the planet from orbit, then digs up all the unobtanium they want. The running time will be about ten minutes ;)

jollyreaper said...

I love fiction that fills me with a sense of awe, or that makes me look at a daily phenomenon in a new light. A story that gives me fuel for day dreams. Characters that could have been me, had I only been born in a different universe. For me that has always been science fiction.

Same here. I like my subjects to be outside of the everyday. You had artists and composers make a fetish out of the common and the every day. While they're free to choose their subjects, I find that sort of thing dull. I'm living my entire life in the everyday. While there's the potential for learning something useful about someone else's everyday, that's simply educational and I need the unusual for the inspirational.

I can read about the past that's really happened and still be transported to something completely beyond my everyday experience. I can read about the fantastic and be brought beyond reality. That's cool, too.

And within the genre, there's both an appreciation of well-loved tropes but also a desire to see them used in innovative ways. There's not really much of a point in seeing the same old story told the same old way with nothing new brought to the table.

jollyreaper said...

- All the rest of the fauna followed a common gross morphology: six limbs, four eyes, neural socket. Except the elves. (Sorry, Na'vi. See Our Elves Are Better on the Evil Website.)


I'd twigged onto that and it was proof of my theory that was wrong. :)

My theory:
1. Pandora and Earth are both seed projects by an unknown third party, thus explaining genetic compatibilities.
2. Earth may have been mostly natural-evolved and thus was the control and Pandora is one of several test systems scattered through local space.
3. The hexapods on Pandora are native and the space smurfs are human-pandoran splices, hence also the similar features
4. The unobtanium is a clarketech post-singularity substance not found naturally anywhere else which is why they have to get it from that planet and it's part of the whole planetary mind network.

All completely disproven by the fluff.

Instead of making them magical wonderful hippie people (and not even reflective of nor respectful to the Native peoples they represented), make them a constructed race - made by the planetary intelligence to interface with the new arrivals.


Another idea I had is that Pandora is a post-singularity world where the naavi are locals who choose to live a primitive utopian lifestyle with all of the fancy stuff occurring in the planetary network in virtual space. They have access to ultratech but it's all kept tucked out of the way due to aesthetic choices. Human interference is tolerated as a way of trying to teach them in a non-destructive way but when the humans start trashing the place, that's where the clarketech weapons are pulled out. We realize that the locals were just being polite and the humans who thought they were going to be the heroic whites and help the locals actually only succeeded in keeping their own asses from getting killed. They realize the naavi saved them, not the other way around. So then the next movie would be about a mission to Earth to try and help rebuild our own wrecked world.

And I forget which list it was pointed out on, this was already pulled in the original Trek with the whole Organian thing -- the Fed and Klingons are fighting over a primitive world and it turns out the primitives are actually highly advanced energy beings who were putting both sides to the test.

jollyreaper said...

If it were just the limbs, it wouldn't be so glaring. But losing two limbs and two eyes, changing the jaw structure dramatically, and in general resembling the recently-arrived aliens much more than anything on your native planet?

Basically "Something in a completely alien environment on another planet evolving in such a fashion as to look like something we'd want to have sex with." That's the kicker right there. And that's why I was thinking Cameron might be super cagey and say "Yeah, that was why you should have considered a third party doing genetic tinkering. I didn't miss that part, not at all!"

I'm a big fan of including things that look like oversights but are actually major clues.

jollyreaper said...


This is probably the source of the complaint against the blue elves; the body plan of every other species is based on a common ancestor, so unless you can convince us the blue elves are a different order rather than species (and where is the rest of their order?), they are unconvincing, to say the least.


The question would be if there's any reason why you couldn't have two or more distinct lines of land dwellers. All vertebrates have a common ancestor and amphibs/lizards/birds/humans all have a common ancestor. So would any competing line likely be defeated? We have the extant example of all mammals being from one distinct branch and all birds being from another very distinct branch. And going all the way back everything from squid to paramecium all have genetic tell-tails marking us as part of the same tree of life. So is that something that is likely to be the only way it can happen or can you have a planet with competing lines? I think it's possible.

There was a pretty good series called The Future is Wild where they speculated about life millions of years after humans. The birds died out and were replaced by land-adapted flying fish. Old-style fish are all gone. Mammals were done in and now the biggest land critters are derived from terrapins. You have dino-scale turtles. Mega-sized and highly advanced man-o-war are some of the biggest sea predators. And one of my personal favs, tree squid and tree octopi are very successful. If I recall there was even a glider octopus occupying the same niche as a flying squirrel. If I recall correctly the cephalopods developed pneumatic tubes in place of endoskeletons.

Raymond said...

jollyreaper:

"The question would be if there's any reason why you couldn't have two or more distinct lines of land dwellers."

I'm sure you could - but where are all the others?

Which is sorta tied in with...

Tony:

"It's because the Na'vi have the interface that they can ride all the animals they do. They hook it up to the animal's corresponding interface and exert control through it."

It's not impossible for the Na'vi to be the only species with the controlling version of the interface - but it bugs me that we don't see any other species pulling the same trick. If neural interfaces are commonplace traits, why has no other species adapted to take advantage of them?

Luke:

Going through the maglev mountain math again, I think I've got a handle on how it's working. I can't see a planetary magnetic field producing either the necessary strength nor the required gradient, though. Could localized unobtainium deposits do it? How non-uniform could their distribution be before the field is so wonky that the levitating island rips itself apart from the shear forces?

Thucydides:

"Avatar is much closer to the Hornblower in Space trope than my idea of SF; look closely and it is Pocahontas in Spaaaaace! Avatar II is going to be spectacular; the mining company comes back and nukes the planet from orbit, then digs up all the unobtanium they want. The running time will be about ten minutes ;)"

This is where Avatar fell on its face, for me, both as science fiction and as a human story. The Na'vi annoyed me to the point where I almost sympathized with Colonel Scarface. But there's an implied planetary-scale intelligence (at least network) with the capability to transfer human consciousness. Screw unobtainium, that's the prize.

Smart planet which doesn't like us very much holds key to functional immortality. We have relativistic spacecraft. I cannot think of a more fundamental human response than "teach us or die".

Luke said...

Raymond:

Going through the maglev mountain math again, I think I've got a handle on how it's working. I can't see a planetary magnetic field producing either the necessary strength nor the required gradient, though. Could localized unobtainium deposits do it? How non-uniform could their distribution be before the field is so wonky that the levitating island rips itself apart from the shear forces?

You could potentially have persistent supercurrents running through superconductive deposits in the planet which generate the field. This would require that the inward pressure due to gravitational compression from the rocky overburden or tensile strength of the rock was sufficient to overcome the self-repulsion of a current loop. In addition, the field strength couldn't exceed the superconductor's critical field nor could the current exceed the critical current, and it couldn't be deep enough that the temperature got high enough to exceed the critical temperature.

A superconductor levitating under the influence of an external field is under compression, not tension or shear, so it would tend to compactify itself into a string rather than rip apart. A 10 tesla filed would still be within the limits of compressive strength of rock, if the rock was all one monolithic chunk.

Raymond said...

Luke:

"A superconductor levitating under the influence of an external field is under compression, not tension or shear, so it would tend to compactify itself into a string rather than rip apart."

What I meant was that differing mass distributions would lead to differing potential energy states (heightwise) - if the chunk of rock being lifted was lumpy, there would be shear forces within the chunk (due to more lightly-loaded sections experiencing greater forces at the same height), wouldn't there?

Basically, I'm thinking the scenes with the hoops of small chunks of rock (at the "flux vortex" or whatever-it-was) would be much more typical than large (heterogenous) floating islands.

Luke said...

Raymond:

What I meant was that differing mass distributions would lead to differing potential energy states (heightwise) - if the chunk of rock being lifted was lumpy, there would be shear forces within the chunk (due to more lightly-loaded sections experiencing greater forces at the same height), wouldn't there?

Quite likely, plus you have the interactions of floating rock one place affecting the gradient and field nearby and thus affecting how other rocks float. Once you start throwing all this in you get a complicated problem which becomes difficult to analyze as a thought experiment. I imagine you would get some rocks floating lower, some higher, and clumping together due to the attractive nature of "anti-electromagnets" canceling the magnetic field, while stringing out along field lines.

Raymond said...

Luke:

So I'm not completely off my rocker in being skeptical of large, heterogeneous rock islands being able to float in one piece? (Totally didn't think of the flux pinning, which I should have, given the later scene at the flux-vortex-thingamajigger.)

I will admit to the visual appeal of the Roger Dean floatscape, though. God knows I've built my fair share in Minecraft.

Brian/neutrino78x said...

hey raymond, as far as the floating mountains are concerned, your position seems to be "it looks cool, therefore it must violate the laws of physics." :-/ lol it seems weird. Anything that does not specifically violate natural law is possible. I see no evidence that floating mountains, levitated by natural superconductors (or, in general, powerful magnetic fields) are precluded by natural law.

Also, being surrounded by magnetic fields can make a compass dance without blocking modulating waves. There are mountains where a compass won't work because there is too much natural magnetism, but a satellite phone or GPS works just fine...so I think they would be okay controlling their avatars remotely.

btw you guys can me neutrino78x to distinguish me from others with a similar first name lol ;-) I use that username all over the net, search for neutrino78x and you'll see me in a lot of places. ;-)

--Brian

jollyreaper said...

Wow, you're right about Roger Dean!

http://historyrat.wordpress.com/2010/07/26/roger-dean-other-wordly-art-or-how-avatar-ripped-him-off/

Those landscapes are really close. I was thinking "Eh, others have done floating islands in the sky" but damn, those arches are completely the same. I would have thought that they were doing this as homage like the way the classic LOTR art was replicated in the Jackson movie. But it turns out Cameron didn't get permission. What's the difference between homage and theft? They say good artists borrow and great artists steal. But where's the line? Cameron could have thrown him some bucks. I guess he didn't learn his lesson with Ellison. The Interstellar Vehicle was properly attributed to the guy, was it Pellegrino?

As far as Avatar goes, I'm still a fan. It's great popcorn fun and Cameron really pushed that tech hard. It wasn't sterile and lifeless like the Star Wars prequels; there was even more CGI per second than them but it felt alive and real. And the little touches in the background fluff paid off on-screen. They put a lot of thought into the tech depicted.

jollyreaper said...

Aside from the question of sexually attractive humanoids developing on another planet without any kind of third party intervention and the whole bit about not being able to synthesize the unobtanium, the biggest brainfart would be the method they took in attacking the sacred grove.

Why weren't they prepared for total war? It wasn't supposed to be total war. That makes sense. Nuke the site from orbit? No nukes. This is improv. Check check and check, makes sense. So you need to adapt the big cargo lifter to a bomber. Ok. Now here's the brainfart.

1. Why are you flying low and slow?
2. Why do you have sandbagged fighting positions on the back of the thing?
3. How in the hell is it carrying enough fuel for all that?
4. You do realize you're flying conveniently in range of the enemy. You don't see our B-52's flying down in the weeds to give the Taliban a sporting chance. From the altitude they're bombing at, they could just as well be in orbit.

They could have explained that away with a few details:
1. Cargo craft is carrying the bombs as a slung load.
2. Can't go into horizontal flight with the load slung like that.
3. Can't gain enough altitude to get beyond dragon range
4. Since it's flying low and slow, all the escorts are doing so, too.
5. Make it be fusion-powered or something ridiculous to explain how it's flying like that. VTOL doesn't sip fuel, it gulps it down like an alcoholic who's been dry for a month and is looking to remedy the problem. It's the future but the physics can't be all that different.

The whole bit about them spitballing the whole attack would help to explain why they're doing everything in such an improvised, sub-optimal fashion.

Milo said...

Jollyreaper:

"From the altitude they're bombing at, they could just as well be in orbit."

I haven't seen Avatar, but reading this makes me think that maybe the distinction is not of altitude, but simply of being in orbit versus not in orbit. As we've established in previous space warfare threads, dropping bombs from orbit is tricky because you can't just release them, you need to cancel out your orbital velocity. So deorbiting to drop your bombs makes sense, especially if you're using improvised bombs with poor guidance systems (and so you can't have missiles deorbit while your bomber stays safe). The poor guidance systems would also go a long way to explaining the need to get near the enemy.

Brian/neutrino78x said...

Raymond, maybe the tone in my last post was excessive aggressive. I apologize if you were offended. It was not my intention.

I do think mountains could float if there are intense natural magnetic fields involved; supposedly the unobtainum, a natural room temperature superconductor, is doing it.

--Brian

Brian said...

jollyreaper, actually we do have planes that fly low and slow to attack land targets. I was USN submarines, but I think it is called an A-10 Warthog.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A-10_Warthog

You can't drop a heavy bomb with that though, you would have to use like a C-130; the Mother of All Bombs is designed to be dropped at a relatively low altitude by a C-130.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_of_all_bombs

Apparently the C-130 dropped bombs from 16,000 ft (4,900 m) during Desert Storm.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MC-130#Desert_Storm

Also, just dropping a nuclear weapon or kinetic weapon on it from orbit would not accomplish the goal. They wanted to destroy the tree but still be able to get to the unobtanium. WMDs would take out the tree and several kilometers around it, and probably destroy/irradiate the unobtanium as well. :-O

That, and, you're right, they probably weren't carrying nukes. ;-)

--Brian

nqdp said...

While the humans probably didn't have nukes, they did (according to fluff) have antimatter factories in-system. Why they couldn't spare a few milligrams, I'm not sure. At least the BSG re-boot was responsible enough to mention something about radiation making their magical fuel useless.

Also according to fluff, there are several more ships already heading towards Pandora, and, unless they have some means of pulling off a slingshot at .7c, they have to stop and resupply. I'll be really disappointed if that's not a major plot element in the next movie. I'll also be disappointed if we don't see more detailed human tech... especially pretty spaceships that I can set as my computer wallpaper.

A bit more on the original topic: yes, I liked Avatar, but I would hesitate to call even just the human-tech parts true hard science fiction, since the tech, plausible as it may be, is mostly fluff that doesn't really relate to the story. The native aliens and floating islands didn't bother me too much for some reason, probably because it was clearly established that Pandora is filled with magic and elves.

Geoffrey S H said...

I'm told they will focus on a more aquatic setting for the sequal- qwould be nice to see some futuristic ships and subs, don't usually see them.

Maybe they're deciding to mine away from the elves, underwater where they can't be seen (and the message hasn't reached earth yet, and thus this is another craft on the round trip arriving, hearing what's happened, and deploying the equipment they have to try and carry on getting unobtanium supplies. And thus they have no tungsten rods to deploy.

jollyreaper said...

@Milo the orbit comment was about b52s. 7 miles up or 250, the locals can't hit them in Afghanistan. The kind of SAMS required are huge, the flying telephone pole kind. Man-portable SAMS are only good against low-flying threats and require a high tech ally supplying the parts.

So in avatar the final fight is an air and ground attack against a tree nexus that's a nerve center tongue planetary brain. The humans used a VTOL space plane like a C5 harrier lovechild and flew in improvised bombs, palletozed mining explosives. They did not come in at 16k feet and 200kts, they flew the whole way in VTOL mode, just coincidentally leaving themselves completely open to attack by the natives riding dragonback.

So, my point was that yes, humans had to fight on the navi's terms on the ground, guns against bows, but the aerial fight seemed too conveniently stupid on the human side. It would be like the USS Iowa attacking medieval France and sailing close enough to the coastal forts to be hit by trebuchet fire. Really? No. In a scenario like that, the artillery barrage would be unopposed and the America s wouldn't start dying until soldiers hit the beach and moved inside the shelled fortifications.

Anonymous said...

Additional published materials state that the Na'vi are related to the prolemuris, the monkey-like species that Jake sees on his first trip outside Hell's Gate. The prolemuris show some differences to the general body plan of other Pandoran 'vertebrates' that the Na'vi also share: they have only one pair of eyes, a single neural queue rather than two, and the two upper pairs of limbs have fused to the elbow.

Regarding the attack on the Tree of Souls, the additional materials state that the Valkyrie shuttle is indeed fusion powered. It may have made the whole journey in hover mode to avoid outpacing its ducted-fan escorts. Since the 'bombs' are simply mining charges webbed together, carrying them slung beneath the shuttle or Quaritch's Dragon gunship could potentially have allowed Na'vi banshee riders to neutralize them short of the target by cutting the rope or the webbing. There would also have been a risk of friendly fire from the escorts once they had engaged the Na'vi.

R.C.

Neutrino78x said...

jollyreaper, I think they didn't carry anything like a MOAB or a nuke because the military force there was mainly to defend the mining operation; as someone said, they didn't plan for "total war". So, the best way to take out the tree, given the tools they had, was what was shown in the movie. IMO.

Plus, with USS Iowa vs trebuchet, well, those wouldn't hurt the Iowa. She is made of steel. The crew would quickly put out the fire and/or roll it off into the sea. So, much like in the movie, if you're fighting what they call an asymmetric war, where the other side has much more powerful weapons, you do it just like in martial arts if the other guy has longer reach: you have to move in closer somehow so you can use the tools you do have. :)

As far as sexually attractive aliens, are you guys saying that you are sexually attracted to them, or that you believe the characters in the movie are? I think the reason the guy in the wheelchair was attracted to the alien female is that he was getting all the sensations that a Navi would have. So, what is sexually attractive to them became sexually attractive to him. I don't recall any of the characters who hadn't been hooked up to avatars say "ooh those aliens are so hot". :-/ Was that said somewhere that I missed? :-/

I feel that Avatar was just as much Hard SF as 2001 was. Unless someone can show me something in the movie which was a violation of natural laws? I haven't seen anybody demonstrate that yet.

--Brian

Raymond said...

Neutrino78x:

"Raymond, maybe the tone in my last post was excessive aggressive. I apologize if you were offended. It was not my intention."

No worries. Wasn't offended.

"I see no evidence that floating mountains, levitated by natural superconductors (or, in general, powerful magnetic fields) are precluded by natural law."

Precluded, no - see Luke's analysis earlier. You'd have to have very specific conditions, though. Even then, I suspect it'd be difficult to find a suitable configuration to allow a large, lumpy, heterogeneous island mass levitate intact, without cracking or shearing due to non-uniform mass distribution.

Same goes for the (incredibly) humanoid Na'vi. It's possible, but it's so very unlikely.

"Also, being surrounded by magnetic fields can make a compass dance without blocking modulating waves. There are mountains where a compass won't work because there is too much natural magnetism, but a satellite phone or GPS works just fine...so I think they would be okay controlling their avatars remotely."

A) It wasn't just navigation problems - it was also difficulties with communication, which lead to commensurate problems with bandwidth. And frankly, any neural interface with the capabilities of the avatars would have pretty hefty bandwidth and latency requirements.

B) The magnetic field strength required to levitate chunks of rock is several orders of magnitude higher than most naturally-occurring fields on Earth - and would most definitely interfere severely with radio communication.

"As far as sexually attractive aliens, are you guys saying that you are sexually attracted to them, or that you believe the characters in the movie are?"

Judging by the number of examples of Rule Thirty-Four wrt Avatar, enough people do find them sexually attractive that they count. Even Pandorapedia mentions it - see http://www.pandorapedia.com/navi/life_society/the_navi. I'm not into blue cat people myself, but I'm usually not into Space Elves of any stripe, ear geometry or neon hue.

I realize Cameron basically had to make the Na'vi human-like to the degree he did. Not only to get the audience to connect emotionally, but also because his fancy performance-capture tech wouldn't work otherwise. I just think he missed a chance to do some trope-judo and use it to his and the story's advantage.

Raymond said...

Brian:

I'm pretty sure the C-130/MoAB combo was exactly what Cameron had in mind with that sequence. Problem is, modern air forces at least wait until they've established air superiority first.

Tony had a line, not on this thread but on this subject (sorry, Tony, I can't find the exact quote), which basically said that with hard SF getting the human organization and responses right was at least as important as getting the science in line. And I agree with that, ultimately.

I'm not as much of a stickler as I seem here about addressing FTL/time travel stuff - but I cringe every time an author sets up their human polities as Yet Another Neo-Feudal Aristocratic System or Yet Another Neo-Corporate Dystopia. Same goes for cockamamie pseudo-military plans of attack.

nqdp:

"While the humans probably didn't have nukes, they did (according to fluff) have antimatter factories in-system."

Antimatter factories and stereolithography plants on the surface. Given the apparent timeframe of Jake's infiltration mission (at least a couple months), you'd think they'd be able to figure out better fire support.

"A bit more on the original topic: yes, I liked Avatar, but I would hesitate to call even just the human-tech parts true hard science fiction, since the tech, plausible as it may be, is mostly fluff that doesn't really relate to the story. The native aliens and floating islands didn't bother me too much for some reason, probably because it was clearly established that Pandora is filled with magic and elves."

Related to above, I agree, but not for the same reasons. As (relatively) plausible as the human tech is, Cameron was trying too hard to have Pocahontas IN SPAAACE, to make it a "message" film, to justify his magic and elves, and by doing so missed chances to make it a better human story.

Thucydides said...

The whole planetary brain thing was done far better by Stanislaw Lem in Solaris. Even the George Clooney adaptation was a far superior film compared to Avatar from a story perspective; it was about people encountering and reacting to the strange and inexplicable. (If you have the chance, see the Soviet version from 1972 as well).

Avater is a great example of modern American film making, splurge on the spectacle at the expense of the story.

WRT the Avater II snark (they come back and nuke them from orbit!), from a story point of view it is a logical extension of what we have already seen. The Corporate management does not seem to be very interested or excited by the discovery of a potential planetary brain, but is fixated on "unobtanium". They may not have nukes, but any civilization that can produce STL starships with beam core antimatter engines should have little difficulty whipping up a guidance package and deorbiting a large rock on any target on the planetary surface. For that matter, since it is implied a laser lightsail is needed to accelerate the ship to cruise speed, where is the orbital laser facility in the Pandora system? Nothing like a ravening beam of death to make people or blue elves see things your way.

Sabersonic said...

Apologies for breaking the current reply rail of the numerous (Evil Website links comming up, you have been warned) Plot Holes and Plot Armor that is present amist the special effects specticle that is otherwise Dances in Wolves in Space, but there was a little note made by Rick in the blog entry that caught my eye:

"spaceships that look like the Navajo missile of the 1950s are both coolific and Realistic [TM] in my eye, while spaceships that look like a V-2 with wings look corny, dated, and implausible. Never mind that they are both equally genuine design concepts, little more than a decade apart and both more than half a century old - or even that one evolved directly from the other. One looks right to me, while the other doesn't."

That, to me, raised a few eyebrows for a few moments. Not really sure how to put it into words that could be understood as to how this really perplexed that statement has made me and (unfortunately) made me wonder exactly why that was so. The only thing that came to my mind is that V-2 esque designs are streamlined and hide many of the mechanical details from view. The example Navajo missile is somewhat more complex in design, not really stuffing all of the systems into a single body.

I guess, for a twisted analogy on the subject, it would be akin to him preferring a Katoki Design over an Okawara Design.

As for this:

For that matter, since it is implied a laser lightsail is needed to accelerate the ship to cruise speed, where is the orbital laser facility in the Pandora system? - Thucydides

I'm not a hundred percent positive, but I could have sworn that several of the sources such as Atomic Rockets stating that the reason that the ISV Venture Star even has Hybrid Antimater-Fusion engines is that there are no laser batteries in Alpha Centauri.

But to get back to the original subject of the blog entry, I think that it's the "Fiction" aspect of the story is just as important to any Science Fiction story regardless of its placement on the plausability scale as the Science itself. After all, if an author dwelve exponentially less attention to the characters, setting and plot that the average reader could relate and immerse readily compared to scientific and technical accuracy, s/he might as well simply write a technical manual. The same could be said of less-than adequite knowledge of fundamental laws and theories of physics, though that portion of the "Science Fiction" equation recieves noticable apathy and forgiveness the more visual the presented media is utilized.

And before I forget, I remember someone on this blog made a comment about "Tiger Stripe" radiators on a Star Destroyer that would make the design more paletable at the very least. For the life of me I can't remember who or where but it mulled in my head long enough for me to ask this:
How practical are Radiator Strips? I thought the only space radiator designs are the ones that are stuck out like huge wings that almost always says "shoot me".

- Hotmail Address
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jollyreaper said...

As far as proper and improper designs go, where senate talking about aesthetics more than practicality, there's some real room for disagreement.

I dislike the classic V2 50's space rocket designs in part because of the cheesy storytelling that went with them. Old-fashioned ideas ranging from women being insipid decorations lacking in brains, Dudley Doright heroes, huge oversights like computer tech being practically nonexistent, it all feels cheesy and dumb. To compare to mecha in Japan, I hated the 60's super-robot designs, dumb and cheesy. I really liked 80's mecha like from Robotech. The evangelions from the 90's were an interesting twist. But I generally hate all of the newer designs with the tiny waists, built up shoulders and clown feet. They are as awful as most battletech designs but for differing reasons.

It's kind of funny because I know starfighters are as ridiculous as space cadet rockets but the X-Wing is still the coolest thing ever.

Anonymous said...

Thucydides:

The RDA is forbidden from possessing or using weapons of mass destruction, which a large rock would probably be counted as. I would also imagine that their actions over the course of the film would have led to a great deal of criticism back on Earth, perhaps even to talk of revoking their monopoly over the Alpha Centauri system, and that the massive overkill of using a WMD on hunter-gatherers would only increase this.

Also, the laser lightsail is only used when leaving or returning to earth. This is understandable, since the construction of a launch laser capable of accelerating a 1.6 km starship at 1.5 g for 5.5 months would be a massive undertaking, requiring an extensive space infrastructure that would be very difficult and expensive to set up in another star system. At Pandora, the starships use their antimatter engines to accelerate or decelerate.

R.C.

ElAntonius said...

It's interesting that people are discussing the Realism of Avatar when in fact I was less bothered by the science than by the people there.

I found the Navi utterly unsympathetic, to the point that I was rooting for a victory on the part of the humans. The preachiness...the anvilicious lines like "WE KILLED OUR MOTHER", just made me scoff at the "good guys".

From what I've read, the original plot of Avatar was supposed to be much less black and white: you see traces of it in the fact that Quaritch isn't really all that bad as far as movie villains go.

Originally, the humans had a much more defined NEED of the unobtanium, and both sides were presented as having their points. I honestly think that would have been the better story.

Thucydides said...

R.C.

It is great to set up constraints like the Corporation is forbidden to..."x"

Getting around constraints is a pretty common story telling trope, and the crew in the Pandora System are certainly not being tightly controlled from Earth; in fact they are probably more like local governors in India, Australia or the America and the Canadas during the age of sail. How they use or abuse their local autonomy is a great place to intersect story telling, human responses and the SFnal aspects of the story (due to STL, the local manager is always 4 years behind any text message from Earth, and many more years from a starship if the setting is indeed Alpha Centauri.

Many threads ago, it was pointed out that any spacefaring civilization had access to vast amounts of energy in the form of ships moving at interplanetary or interstellar velocities, so the Corporation has WMD by definition. Even the orbital tenders can be remote piloted to the surface as huge KKVs.

Frankly, AVATAR is probably beyond "saving" as a SF franchise, and should be thought of as a fantasy. People will flock to see the cool special effects, either holding their noses for the story aspects (Dances with Extraterrestrials part XXVII) or perhaps being the draw if their world view encompasses that sort of thing. For those of us who want a bit more SF in their morning coffee, perhaps "Forever War" will do the trick (especially if the plot is relatively faithful to the book).

Like the title of the thread says, it is a matter of taste.

jollyreaper said...

For those of us who want a bit more SF in their morning coffee, perhaps "Forever War" will do the trick (especially if the plot is relatively faithful to the book).


I think we're probably going to have to wait a little longer for really good visual scifi. Books can be written for damned cheap and that'll be the easiest way to get small-market, high-quality hard SF. But as animation gets cheaper, I think we'll be able to see small-market video produced.

Personally, I like the idea from the other thread of doing a universe where FTL and subsequent time travel are both allowed for with the question of "So how come we've never heard of time travel actually taking place?" being of great significance.

jollyreaper said...

I think there's room to tell one hell of a brain-twisting story when you include causality-violation weapons, reletavistic speeds, FTL, and so forth. It could well be a meta-stable system (we all love saying that) falling apart for the first time. Starts out with star travel as regulated as nukes, causality enforcement hardwired into the engines, religiously tight control over the tech. And that lasts for a while. But then the colonies start reverse-engineering the tech and want some independence from Earth -- maybe this could be when FTL becomes cheap enough to make interstellar trade a serious economic viability and Earth tries to assert too much control -- and then we have our first interstellar war. And that's when what's been known to be theoretically possible but never tried as a gentlemen's agreement suddenly goes away.

Here's a question. We talk about the wormholes as being in space. Is there any reason why they can't be located on planetary surfaces? Because talk about the world getting smaller! We went from traveling to the New World being something on the order of months to now being a 12 hr flight. You can be anywhere in the world in 24 hours. What if an interstellar journey that takes 20 years now becomes a matter of walking through a wormhole on one world and instantly appearing on another? We'd certainly go from the old situation of "No feasible economic or political ties between star systems" to suddenly being cheek to jowl with our neighbors.

Luke said...

jollyreaper:

Here's a question. We talk about the wormholes as being in space. Is there any reason why they can't be located on planetary surfaces?

There are no known constraints that prohibit wormholes from being on a planet (I have argued that this is a plausible technological use of them several times in comment's on Rick's here blog). Clearly, if your wormhole engineering abilities only allow wormholes as massive as Jupiter, you can't place one on Earth's surface! However, if you can make small, lightweight wormholes placing them on a planet makes a lot of sense. You will still need an airlock, however - even connecting points at the same altitude on Earth will have hurricane force winds howling through the wormhole due to natural fluctuations in barometric pressure between the two sides (on a good day, you will merely get gale force winds).

neutrino78x said...

Raymond, your link says the Navi are beautiful, not sexually attractive. Horses are beautiful. Birds are beautiful. Cats are beautiful. Most humans don't want to have sex with them. ;-) Or if they do, it is because of aesthetic beauty and beauty of their mind/soul, not sexual attraction per se. Jake -- I think that was the guy in the wheelchair -- was attracted to them because he was feeling the same sensations a Navi would feel.

Replies to things others have said:

Dropping a rock on the tree would not work for the same reason a nuke wouldn't work. They wanted to destroy the tree but preserve the unobtanium deposit underneath. So, that means conventional explosives, as seen in the movie.

They did establish unobtantium being important to the humans. They didn't spend 20 minutes on it in the movie, because, it should be obvious that they wouldn't go all that way to mine a mineral if it isn't valuable. But they did point out that it is a natural room temperature superconductor, which should make it clear that it is valuable.

Very specific conditions for floating mountains? Well, of course. That doesn't mean it is a violation of natural law or could never happen.

I think some of you guys are just "media snobs", and if something is popular, you automatically don't like it. I am a nerd also, and was never very popular....but Avatar is an example of something that probably wouldn't have come out without the nerds from Silicon Valley being so rich and influential. ;) In other words, we should be glad!! This is a win for Hard SF.

Remember, most people consider 2001 to be Hard SF, but it had "magic" too; the aliens sucked Bowman into the monolith and turned him into a software program. That's not qualitatively different from the floating mountains IMO.

--Brian

Brian said...

Wormwholes on a planet are what the movie and TV series "Stargate" is about. It is awesome! It was Hard SF for a long time, until they started having warp speed, artificial gravity (star trek style) and teleportation in the series. Although like I said before, it could be argued that if you can control gravity to the point that you have warp drive, you can probably do artificial gravity as seen in star trek too.

btw I forgot to add, 2001 was a VERY popular movie, a "blockbuster", so I guess the "media snobs" on here shouldn't like it either, yet, they do.

--Brian

Tony said...

Brian:

"Remember, most people consider 2001 to be Hard SF, but it had "magic" too; the aliens sucked Bowman into the monolith and turned him into a software program. That's not qualitatively different from the floating mountains IMO."

This is why reading the book is important. The monolith wasn't magic, it was an opening to (apparently, given the description in the novel) a gateway into a pocket universe type of FTL. In the Novel, the monolith is at Saturn, not Jupiter, and the rings are a consequence of the energy used to create the opening into the FTL space.

Also, Bowman wasn't turned into a computer program, but studied in situ and his intellect absorbed into a higher order lifeform at the end of his natural life. Clarke makes no representations that this higher form of life is computer-based.

WRT the value of Avatar, it's trash. The story sucked and the science is suspect (even with all of the special pleading made in its favor). And there's no media snobbery involved in that assessment. If it had been a book it would have been just as bad.

Luke said...

Brian:

Remember, most people consider 2001 to be Hard SF, but it had "magic" too

It wasn't too long ago that I re-watched 2001: A Space Odyssey because everyone kept talking about how hard sci-fi it was. Approximately 1/3 of it seems to be relatively hard sci-fi, the remainder was weird acid trips and rocks singing to apes and other oddness. Mostly the movie was incomprehensible (even after reading and enjoying the book).

On the other hand, I liked Avatar.

Neutrino78x said...

Both Avatar and 2001 got over 8.0 (out of 10) on Internet Movie Database :) that is the average voting of random internet users who registered on the site to complain and argue about movies lol.

8.4 for 2001:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062622/

8.2 for Avatar:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0499549/

--Brian

Tony said...

Brian:

"btw I forgot to add, 2001 was a VERY popular movie, a "blockbuster", so I guess the "media snobs" on here shouldn't like it either, yet, they do."

A good story and non-ridiculous science (for the time in which it was created) does a lot for an SF story. It was a good book and a good (even if a little bit cryptic without reading the novel) movie.

Tony said...

"Both Avatar and 2001 got over 8.0 (out of 10) on Internet Movie Database :) that is the average voting of random internet users who registered on the site to complain and argue about movies lol.

8.4 for 2001:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0062622/

8.2 for Avatar:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0499549/

--Brian"


I'm pretty sure that the high approval on IMDB has to do with the cinematic qualities of the films -- and both had very high production values, no debate to be had there -- not their SFnal merits. As always, one must consider the context before one comes to conclusions.

Anonymous said...

ElAntonius:

I think the line 'we killed our mother' has to be taken in the context of the Na'vi believing that their Mother Goddess is embodied in nature, and specifically in the connections between trees. Extensive deforestation, extinctions and pollution such as implied to have taken place on Earth would, to them, be seen as killing the mother through severing the connections.

Thucydides:

There is a form of FTL communication based on quantum entanglement, with a very slow transmission rate of around 3 bits per hour, that allows realtime contact with Earth, though very limited. As to the limits of central governmental control during the Age of Sail, I would give the examples of the Indian Mutiny and the Rum Rebellion in New South Wales, both arguably caused by poor decisions on the part of local authorities (the British East India Company and Governor William Bligh, respectively), like the events on Pandora. In both cases, although the instigators of these revolts were punished, reforms did address the issues that had caused them to rebel.

R.C.

Brian said...

Tony, I've read the book 2001, I've also read 2010, 2061 and 3001 (the last one is disappointing...the literary style is inferior to the other books). If you read the other books, Clarke is very clear that the aliens are (non-physical) computers. They started out biological, then they integrated computers into themselves, then they became the computers, then they found a way to convert the computers into structured energy fields.

In the later books, Clarke explains that the monolith uses nanotechnology, and Bowman was absorbed using nanotech, and is now a (sentient, conscious) software program. The monolith also uploads HAL and integrates Bowman and HAL. Later, when the monolith threatens earth in 3001, the humans give it a computer virus, disabling it. There's a principle that any computer can emulate any other computer, if you can interface the hardware. so, in theory, this could be done. What happens is that the humans (actually, Poole, who was revived using nanotech) ask Bowman/HAL to upload the virus. So Bowman/HAL uploads it, and then puts itself in a safe place inside the monolith, where it will not be destroyed.

Regarding Avatar, according to hardsf.net,

"This is an amazing movie, simply spectacular, with many connections to actual events on our world, deeply emotional and realistic, a new dimension on multimedia creation, when the movie ends a wow feeling will linger in you. So far the best SciFi movie of 2009."

http://www.hardsf.net/avatar-camerons-movie/

Seth Shustak (senior guy at SETI) was disappointed by the movie:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/seti-institute/life-at-the-seti-institut_b_427337.html

but a user posted this:

"I think Avatar is a lot harder than most movie SF. I'm prepared to accept a lot happening offscreen, unlike in a novel, where there's room to explain the details.

Those ships might be fast, but they're not using some imaginary FTL drive. They look like Pellegrino­'s Valkyries. Valkyries are antimatter fuelled. I'll accept enormous solar-powe­red antimatter factories built by self-repli­cating machinery, put the Von Neumann seed for one in close orbit around Alpha Centauri B and there's your fuel. They don't mention this in the movie, but I don't usually mention the gas station when I'm driving my car."

Avatar had an excellent story and it was all hard science. You guys just don't want to accept that a nerdy story could become mainstream if rich nerds are promoting it, which is what happened. Avatar is a win! Just look at how many nerds watched it and support it. If guys like Bill Gates hadn't become rich from being computer nerds, we wouldn't have movies like that. It's a win. :-)

--Brian

Tony said...

Brian:

"Tony, I've read the book 2001, I've also read 2010, 2061 and 3001..."

2010 was published in 1982, 14 years after 2001. They're books from two different generations, both in technology and technological outlook. For that very good reason, I was addressing both the book and the movie of 2001: A Space Odyssey as existing separately from the sequels.

"Regarding Avatar, according to hardsf.net,"

According to http://www.hardsf.net/about/:

"This is a site dedicated to Hard Science Fiction, that area where the line between science and fiction is blured, like an elctron around its nucleus..."

IOW, it's a site dedicated to nonsense.

"'This is an amazing movie, simply spectacular, with many connections to actual events on our world, deeply emotional and realistic, a new dimension on multimedia creation, when the movie ends a wow feeling will linger in you. So far the best SciFi movie of 2009.'"

I would agree with "deeply emotional", but not at all with "realistic". Not to mention the silliness of the James Cameron [hearts] US Marines trope.

WRT "connections to actual events on our world", if he means that certain plot features resemble a bad 500 word essay for a high school current events class, I suppose he has a point.


http://www.hardsf.net/avatar-camerons-movie/

Seth Shustak (senior guy at SETI) was disappointed by the movie:

"but a user posted this:

'I think Avatar is a lot harder than most movie SF. I'm prepared to accept a lot happening offscreen, unlike in a novel, where there's room to explain the details.

Those ships might be fast, but they're not using some imaginary FTL drive. They look like Pellegrino­'s Valkyries. Valkyries are antimatter fuelled. I'll accept enormous solar-powe­red antimatter factories built by self-repli­cating machinery, put the Von Neumann seed for one in close orbit around Alpha Centauri B and there's your fuel. They don't mention this in the movie, but I don't usually mention the gas station when I'm driving my car.'"


Considering that how the starship gets home has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, all of the above is irrelevant fluff. And in trying to defend that which needs no defense, the commenter screws up and opens a plot hole -- if antimatter factories can be built with self-replicating machines, why do you need humans to mine unobtainium?

"Avatar had an excellent story and it was all hard science. You guys just don't want to accept that a nerdy story could become mainstream if rich nerds are promoting it, which is what happened. Avatar is a win! Just look at how many nerds watched it and support it. If guys like Bill Gates hadn't become rich from being computer nerds, we wouldn't have movies like that. It's a win. :-)"

If you want to put it that way, all it proves is that nerd != intelligent.

Raymond said...

neutrino78x:

"Horses are beautiful. Birds are beautiful. Cats are beautiful. Most humans don't want to have sex with them."

A) Rule Thirty-Four.

B) Furries.

Luke, jollyreaper:

Wouldn't wormhole ends on a planetary surface experience dilation from the planet's gravity? Especially with planar wormholes, how do you keep even a small dilation from causing damage?

On 2001:

I'm of the (often unpopular) opinion that 2001 was one of Kubrick's weaker works, especially compared to Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket. For too much of the movie I was straight-up bored, and too often I had to check the book to figure out what was going on. And I've always found reading Clarke a slog.

Brian:

"Avatar had an excellent story and it was all hard science. You guys just don't want to accept that a nerdy story could become mainstream if rich nerds are promoting it, which is what happened."

I cant speak for anyone but myself here, but:

- I don't find mainstream/non-mainstream distinctions particularly useful. I disliked Avatar on the merits (or lack thereof), not anything to do with who promoted it or how many people saw it.

- My favorite SF movies that year were Moon, which was hard(-ish) SF, but also had a number of spots at which one could quibble with the science, and District 9, which wasn't really hard SF at all. Both had stronger stories, better characters, and more interesting directorial styles. YMMV.

- Part of my dislike for Avatar directly stems from my disappointment in James Cameron, who is responsible for some of my favorite movies of all time - and is usually much better at believable characters and avoiding cliches. (Creating cliches, on the other hand, he used to do all the time.)

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Creating cliches, on the other hand, he used to do all the time."

I'll be back, right after I nuke them from orbit, because it's the only way to be sure. Then I'll be King of the World!

Raymond said...

Tony:

Exactly. (Though I hated Titanic.) Where was the equivalent line from Avatar?

Tony said...

Raymond:

"Exactly. (Though I hated Titanic.) Where was the equivalent line from Avatar?"

Cameron was too busy with luscious visuals (and I have to admit that, in strictly cinematic terms they were luscious) to bother with a good story or interesting characters. Can't have good, memorable one-liners if the audience isn't engaged with the human story. Oh, wait...there wasn't a human story -- the humans were just foils for the ET smurfs.

Rick said...

I never went to see Avatar, for the same reason that I thought the Reivers were the weakest thing in the Firefly-verse: I have no patience with one dimensional Injuns (sic!), whether they are Noble Savages or just plain savages. (The saving difference being that the Reivers weren't really central to Firefly.)

And not much patience with blue elves, period. But I have no doubt that some sort of para-sexiness was intended - why else cast Zoe Saldana?

I would have regarded floating islands as pretty much a fantasy element, but they would not have bothered me if deployed in the service of a story I wanted to see.


On the aesthetics of the Navajo versus a winged V-2, part of it is indeed sheer aesthetics, but it is probably also an effect of when I was growing up. The Navajo was already obsolete and long since cancelled, but books on space in the kids' section of the public library lagged a few years behind events, so the 50s look was still cool and modern.

Plus, I did indeed associate winged V-2s with Corny Stuff in general.

Regarding surface stargates, note the image for this post.

jollyreaper said...


Wouldn't wormhole ends on a planetary surface experience dilation from the planet's gravity? Especially with planar wormholes, how do you keep even a small dilation from causing damage?


Dunno. I'm aware of Stargate but whatever the gates are operate off of hanwavium the consistency of a warm brie. It's Trek-soft. I was more talking about wormholes that fit within the hard SF realm, or at the very least "Well, it's not explicitly violating any physics we know of..."

Things would really get interesting if the wormholes could be placed on planets. To get the equipment out there you have to go slowboat and then suddenly your planet's connected to another world as easily as a tram line.

That was something I'd wondered about with handwavium portals. There was an old scifi series called the Lost Regiment. The premise is that advanced aliens had linked together planets similar to their own via teleportation gates. Since Earth is like their planet, it gets a gate. They later suffered some sort of civilization-ending catastrophe and are nomadic savages. The gates are neglected and malfunctioning and will open and close at random and thus sweep humans over to their world.

Now what that got me thinking about is what if a system like that was abandoned by the creators and subsequently found by humans? You'd have an unknown number of planets connected. You cross over to the new planet and now you've got an entire new world to explore as you search for the portal to the next planet. I'm imagining this discover made around the beginning of the 20th century and an interplanetary steam railroad network with journeys potentially lasting for months as the trains run for tens of thousands of miles across several planets. The idea appealed to my sense of whimsy.

Luke said...

Raymond:

Wouldn't wormhole ends on a planetary surface experience dilation from the planet's gravity? Especially with planar wormholes, how do you keep even a small dilation from causing damage?

A wormhole anywhere will experience time dilation due to gravitational effects. Differences in gravitational potential (proximity to a star, or location within the galaxy) will cause relative time dilation between ends. This will be an effect that wormhole engineers will need to account for.

If you have an intraplanetary wormhole network, the time scale over which gravitational time dilation leads to problems becomes smaller, because of the reduced separation between the mouths. Time lag depends on both the altitude (due to the gravitational potential) and the latitude (due to the rotational speed) - it may be possible to have all wormhole termini be at a specific altitude for a given latitude and avoid relative gravitational redshift.

If you have an interplanetary wormhole network with wormholes at the planet's surface, the gravitational time dilation effects are not appreciably more severe than if the termini were located in space.

One way to keep time lag from bringing down a wormhole network is to take whatever end is advanced in time and stick it in a cyclotron for a bit. Time dilation will occur, and bring that wormhole end back in line with the rest of the network. This occasionally takes wormholes off-line, which may be as much of an inconvenience as modern-day road work or track maintenance.

Raymond said...

Luke:

Makes sense. What about surface-to-orbit wormholes, though?

jollyreaper said...


And not much patience with blue elves, period. But I have no doubt that some sort of para-sexiness was intended - why else cast Zoe Saldana?


Of course it was intentional. I'm surprised anyone would even doubt that for a moment.

There is a pervy line for people discussing the sexual attractiveness of inhuman characters. In modern times people would talk about cartoon characters and some people would have impure thoughts and others are like "wait, how are you even imagining this? That doesn't even make sense."

I'd say that the green-skinned Orion slave girl trope certainly existed before Trek but Trek certainly codified it. If it's alien but could completely pass for human except for one cosmetic difference, nobody feels funny about saying "Go for it!" Cat girls will usually push that trope slightly further. They'll have a light dusting of fur all over but they'll have a full head of human-normal hair, maybe cat ears on top of the head and slightly pointed canines but otherwise look 99.9% human. Two proper, mammalian breasts, no row of tiny teats.

You start pushing into weird areas with the furries. Most people would be put off by the idea of an animal girl with a proper animal muzzle, a mouth that looks less like your girlfriend's and more like your dog's. The same problem was encountered with the Planet of the Apes remake where they had to create a talking ape woman who looked like an ape yet could somehow be appealing to the human lead without feeling like beastiality. The bizarre human/ape androgynous look they came up with looked a whole lot like Michael Jackson which raises a whole pile of new and unsettling questions.

The Navi are placed squarely between the green-skinned slave girl and the cat-girl. That's also square in elf territory. Nobody feels dirty for having hots for elves. Hots for Orc women are a different matter.

This was of course heavily focus-grouped. Consider movies from the 70's through the 90's. A black actor could get away with being 100% black and having prominent African features. If a black woman is paired with him, especially as a love interest, she's going to be mixed because she has to have classic, European features, a white nose. If this was meant to be a mainstream movie and not just blacksploitation, then they had to make sure that the sex appeal was squarely directed at white males.

Anonymous said...

Jollyreaper:

In David Weber's Multiverse series, there are (apparently natural) portals linking parallel worlds, and one of the two civilizations described is at a roughly early 20th century level, and has railways running through the portals and overland between them. In Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga series, the invention of surface wormholes in the 21st century means that starships are never invented, and by the late 24th century, there is a large network of railways running through wormholes to connect hundreds of planets.

R.C.

jollyreaper said...


In David Weber's Multiverse series, there are (apparently natural) portals linking parallel worlds, and one of the two civilizations described is at a roughly early 20th century level, and has railways running through the portals and overland between them. In Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga series, the invention of surface wormholes in the 21st century means that starships are never invented, and by the late 24th century, there is a large network of railways running through wormholes to connect hundreds of planets.


Ha, I figured as much. Never encountered these particular stories. The only Weber I'd read was Harrington and the only Hamilton I'd read was Night's Dawn. Dawn was great up until he strapped atomic boosters on his skis and did a sub-orbital jump over the shark straight into a lousy Stephen King ending.

Tony said...

"In Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga series, the invention of surface wormholes in the 21st century means that starships are never invented, and by the late 24th century, there is a large network of railways running through wormholes to connect hundreds of planets."

Which makes the series very campy, in a trainspotting sort of way. Totally turned me off.

ElAntonius said...

R.C.: "I think the line 'we killed our mother' has to be taken in the context of the Na'vi believing that their Mother Goddess is embodied in nature, and specifically in the connections between trees. Extensive deforestation, extinctions and pollution such as implied to have taken place on Earth would, to them, be seen as killing the mother through severing the connections."

I understood that within the context of the movie, but being uttered from the main character just struck me as the author getting up on their podium...a practice I admit I am not fond of.

My problem with the movie stems from the fact that if the designated heroes were not constantly spouting hammy, anvil-dropping lines like that, we'd never even know who to root for. So lines like that serve to calcify what could have been a much more interesting and nuanced story.

As Rick alluded to, there seems to only be two portrayals of (SPAAAAACE!) "injuns": the savage complete monster, and the noble persecuted by the civilized complete monster.

It's a sort of primordial dissonance in the American psyche, I think...the inability to view any treatment of the basic civilization vs. natives tale with any nuance comes from a deep desire to either rationalize the atrocities committed by the US, or as a deep apology for those same events.

It's a shame that Avatar had to devolve into the latter, with a huge helping of environmental guilt dug in. At least the chiefly portrayed scientist wasn't evil...that's a step up from the usual.

Tony said...

ElAntonius:

"It's a sort of primordial dissonance in the American psyche, I think...the inability to view any treatment of the basic civilization vs. natives tale with any nuance comes from a deep desire to either rationalize the atrocities committed by the US, or as a deep apology for those same events."

Not just American culture -- look at Attenborough's construction (some would say outright invention) of Ghandi as a living saint, and Kingsley's compliance in portrayal. See also Zulu.

Thucydides said...

The sexy aliens trope is pretty old as well; think of Dejah Thoris, Princess of Helium.

For that matter, Odysseus has trysts with sea nymphs, witches and narrowly avoids being seduced and eaten by the Sirens (not to mention a platonic relationship with the Goddess Athena), so while the specifics change, there is something in the human psyche that does respond to attractive aliens.

Milo said...

Thucydides:

"Many threads ago, it was pointed out that any spacefaring civilization had access to vast amounts of energy in the form of ships moving at interplanetary or interstellar velocities, so the Corporation has WMD by definition."

Yes, but they only have one, and if they blow it up they won't be able to get home. Also, it needs Earth's laser launch to build the speeds in question.

So, both factors work to concluding that you can't nuke Pandora, only ask Earth to nuke Pandora for you. And even if they agree, it'll be years before the nuke arrives.



Jollyreaper:

"It could well be a meta-stable system (we all love saying that) falling apart for the first time."

But it's time travel! If it falls apart at all, ever, then we will feel the repercussions.

I would also bet against humanities likelihood to resist using an extremely useful peaceful technology just because it's potentially dangerous.

Obvious applications of time travel include the ability to solve NP-complete problems in polynomial time, the ability to prevent disasters before they happen, and the ability to always be perfectly right about everything.



neutrino78x:

"Remember, most people consider 2001 to be Hard SF, but it had "magic" too; the aliens sucked Bowman into the monolith and turned him into a software program."

The magic there was explained as technology of an unbelievably advanced civilization. I find that more believable than a natural occurance or hunter-gatherer level technology which just happens to be incredible compared to our experiences.

In any case, the humans and their technology were quite believable. (We didn't develop AI as fast as Clarke predicted, but it's still a plausible technology for us to figure out sometime in the next couple centuries. Or maybe we won't. Who knows.)

Milo said...

Brian:

"btw I forgot to add, 2001 was a VERY popular movie, a "blockbuster", so I guess the "media snobs" on here shouldn't like it either, yet, they do."

Actually, I didn't. The book was good, but the movie was mind-numbingly boring and incomprehensible.


"Clarke is very clear that the aliens are (non-physical) computers."

Only in the most general sense, right? Technically you could say that our brains are biological computers (and by extension so is the rest of us, since a computer is not just a CPU).


"They started out biological, then they integrated computers into themselves, then they became the computers, then they found a way to convert the computers into structured energy fields."

So they went from organic computers, to organic-electronic hybric computers (presumably with very little of the CPU being in the electronic part to begin with), to electronic computers, to magitech energy field computers.

Only electronic computers actually line up with what we consider to be "computers" today.



Raymond:

"Wouldn't wormhole ends on a planetary surface experience dilation from the planet's gravity? Especially with planar wormholes, how do you keep even a small dilation from causing damage?"

According to these formulas, Earth's gravity causes a time dilation factor of 0.9999999993 (two seconds per century), while the sun's gravity causes one of 0.999999985 (47 seconds per century).

Let's say that two worlds are 100 lightyears apart, and impatient people on the origin world decide that they want their end of the wormhole open in one year. This means a speed of 99.995% c, and a temporal displacement between the two ends of 99.005 years (out of a maximum of 100 years to avoid time paradoxes). If the destination world's clock is slower by 100 seconds per century, then it will take approximately 314000 years (any similarity to pi is entirely coincidential) before a displacement large enough to cause a paradox arises. Maybe your wormhole will simply collapse at this time - I'm sure that after 31400000 years you'll know how to build a new one. If the destination world's clock is faster by 100 seconds per century, then it will take approximately 6280000000 years before you get a causality problem, which is longer than the age of Earth.

Even if you get the wormholes there in an "hour", then it will still take 3600 years (at the same 1 second per year asynchrony) before you get any problems. If you have the mind-boggling patience of being willing to wait an entire day, then that becomes 86400 years (which is fairly close to the amount of time humans have possessed language).

Milo said...

Jollyreaper:

"They later suffered some sort of civilization-ending catastrophe and are nomadic savages."

What kind of catastrophe can end an interstellar civilization and why are planets that were caught in the blast still in a good enough condition to re-evolve advanced life?

Also, where are the alien archaeological artifacts?

It occurs to me that when talking of lost technology, people seem to ignore the possibility that we discover an artifact of alien precursor magitech technology which, due to us lacking an alien precursor magitech battery, is completely useless as anything except a paperweight.



Raymond (@ Luke):

"Makes sense. What about surface-to-orbit wormholes, though?"

Or Earth-to-Titan wormholes?



Jollyreaper:

"Nobody feels dirty for having hots for elves. Hots for Orc women are a different matter."

Not exactly an orc, but I present: Mamma Gkika.



Thucydides:

"For that matter, Odysseus has trysts with sea nymphs, witches and narrowly avoids being seduced and eaten by the Sirens (not to mention a platonic relationship with the Goddess Athena), so while the specifics change, there is something in the human psyche that does respond to attractive aliens."

For things on the same planet as us, it's not unreasonable for them to be sexually attractive to us due to their evolutionary relationship - lions and tigers apparantly find each other attractive enough for ligers to exist, after all. It happens that the closest thing to us still alive is the chimpanzee, which is far enough from us to not be attractive to most people. If neanderthals were still around, chances are people would find them attractive. (Maybe not elfin prettier-than-homo-sapiens attractive, but still something you'd be interested in having sex with.)

Of course, fantasy creatures like nymphs are evolutionarily implausible, but within their mythology (which frequently features intelligent design by a creator deity, or shared ancestry from a mother deity) they still make sense as being human-like.

Another planet coincidentially evolving something that we consider sexually attractive, with no justification of shared ancestry, is considerably less plausible.

tl;dr version: I'm willing to take for granted things in a fantasy story that I would object to in a science fiction story, even a soft one.

jollyreaper said...


What kind of catastrophe can end an interstellar civilization and why are planets that were caught in the blast still in a good enough condition to re-evolve advanced life?

The humans have no idea. The aliens themselves weren't sure about the details themselves.


Also, where are the alien archaeological artifacts?


No idea. They had little need for advanced technology by this point in time.

The aliens by this point were nomads. Their planet can be circled entirely on land and the aliens have adapted to the use of terran horses at this point. They are humanoid, strong and tall, and have become dependent on humans for food and craftworking. They circle the planet in an endless ride, raiding human settlements for tribute and meat. Tamed humans are carried with them for labor. Essentially they're a twist on the Mongol Horde.

The arrival of a new group of humans has fostered a rebellion as they share their 19th century military technology with the quasi-feudal local humans. The Horde eventually digs up old artifacts from their ancestors to use in the fight but suffer the curse their ancestors put on those artifacts. (vomiting, loss of hair, eventual death. They have no idea what this means but we the readers recognize radiation poisoning.)

Raymond said...

Milo:

Wasn't actually worried about dilation as a source of paradox. I was wondering how to correct for shear/tidal forces due to differing gravitational dilation - mostly on sensitive equipment and computers.

"Yes, but they only have one, and if they blow it up they won't be able to get home. Also, it needs Earth's laser launch to build the speeds in question."

They also have antimatter factories around Alpha Centauri B. A little bit of antimatter goes a long way.

Tim said...

I thoroughly enjoyed Avatar for what it was, a space-based fantasy or "planetary romance." The fact that it also took the time and care to not violate any scientific laws was a bonus, but it doesn't change the fact that it was still pure fantasy. Cameron seemingly decided what he wanted to see in his movie (blue elves, floating mountains, dragon rides) and then came up with elaborate justifications for setting this in a science fiction universe instead of Narnia.

2001 has at its core an inscrutable mystery: an artifact of alien origin that challenges man (and his ancestors) to go beyond their current abilities and imaginations. The humans in the story use the most advanced knowledge and tools at their disposal to examine this mystery, and travel beyond their previous boundaries to do so. This is what qualifies 2001 as "hard SF," not the fact that they built a rotating cylindrical set for their artificial gravity (though that didn't hurt).

Milo said...

Raymond:

"Wasn't actually worried about dilation as a source of paradox. I was wondering how to correct for shear/tidal forces due to differing gravitational dilation - mostly on sensitive equipment and computers."

This wouldn't be an issue. Both wormhole ends will remain synchronized to each other with as viewed by a traveller through the wormhole, even though they may appear to be becoming increasingly out of tune from another frame.

nqdp said...

Tim: I completely agree. I'd also like to add that if you took HAL or the radio dish out of 2001, the plot would have to change dramatically. If you took any or all of the tech out of Avatar, the rest of the film could easily adapt to another setting.

Luke said...

Raymond:

What about surface-to-orbit wormholes, though?

Stuff in low orbit has more time dilation because the orbital velocity slows orbital stuff down more than being lower slows down stuff on the ground. Thus, you can just put the ground-side end in the cyclotron for a while.

For geostationary orbits, the orbiting end has more time dilation, so you would need to have an orbiting cyclotron to balance out the time difference.

It also raises the question of how useful a surface to orbit wormhole would be, since you have to haul all the mass up anyway. Thinking about it, you could leave all the stuff for your communications satellite back on earth except for the antenna, and if you needed to you could do maintenance on the antenna. Similarly, an earth observation satellite could just have a circular wormhole to let light through with everything else back on earth.

On the other hand, with control over wormholes, you might also have control over gravitational waves. This could allow you to get rid of communications satellites and GPS satellites altogether, and replace them with gravitational wave stations for communication and location.

Milo said...

nqdp:

"I'd also like to add that if you took HAL or the radio dish out of 2001, the plot would have to change dramatically."

Actually, I would argue that 2001 was two plotlines - the "fight against the malicious computer that controls your entire surroundings" horror story, and the "curiosity and awe at discovering the work of an inconceivably ancient and advanced alien civilization" exploration story - which were soldered together at the edges.

Both were good plots that the book was stronger for including, but you could have pretty readily moved them into separate stories without really reducing their effectiveness any.

For the HAL storyline it mattered not at all where the ship was going or why, only that it took a long time getting there and was beyond the reach of assistance. HAL was dead by the time the ship encountered any alien activity.



Luke:

"It also raises the question of how useful a surface to orbit wormhole would be, since you have to haul all the mass up anyway."

Unless you can gobble up a near-earth asteroid.

Also, it would be quite useful to be able to cheaply take down and recycle/fix satellites. This would also deal with your mass issues.

Thucydides said...

There is a little too much special pleading in Avatar WRT why things are the way they are (because James Cameron said so!)

An antimatter factory is conceptually about as difficult as a laser battery; either one provides enough energy to do whatever the local management wants ("let's just split Pandora open, expose the core and get the unobtanium that way. Big year end bonus for everyone!"). No matter how you slice it, unless you can invoke some real SFnal plot resolution (planetary brain gets tired of all this, manipulates the systems magnetic fields and causes a massive solar event which cripples or destroys the orbiting facilities), even the most basic orbital systems give the Earth people an overwhelming advantage. They will also be thirsting for revenge and might not care that dropping a rock /antimatter pod/ravening beam of death on the tree nexus will destroy the unobtanium deposit, it has already been established that there are pockets of the ore scattered throughout the planet's crust so they can mine them in peace after eliminating the local problem.

The difference is either you keep manipulating the plot constraints to get the story you want (blue elves defeat evil Earth creatures and live happily ever after), or you find the story as a logical outcome of the setting and situation. "Nuke them from orbit" is a logical story outcome, happily ever after is not so much.

jollyreaper said...

The subsequent 2001 books were so disappointing. 2010 had a neat idea but then everything went over a cliff. The monolith as civilization-nukers? Disappointing. This is what happens when you whore your name out to ghostwriters.

ElAntonius said...

The only thing I can think of is that the unobtanium isn't really that valuable and everyone on Earth thinks the mining company is a bunch of idiots for bothering in the first place...or rather, that the value plummeted in the years after the mission was launched.

Actually, that would be a brilliant twist, and well in keeping with some tropes this site has discussed.

Perhaps a good plot thread for the second movie would be the saner elements of Earth trying to prevent the unhinged company PMC from slagging the Navi via a second mission...seeing as the starships are sleeper in nature, commandeering one via treason doesn't seem too hard.

If sympathetic humans in space can force the PMC to ground, we could have a scenario where our adorable space elves have to shoot up more evil PMC types, and a sane space element from Earth gives us the excuse for a big setpiece space battle set around an asteroid or something.

Raymond said...

Luke:

"For geostationary orbits, the orbiting end has more time dilation..."

You mean the ground end has more dilation, right?

"It also raises the question of how useful a surface to orbit wormhole would be, since you have to haul all the mass up anyway."

Like Milo said, find a near-Earth asteroid. It's better than a space elevator.

Milo:

"This wouldn't be an issue. Both wormhole ends will remain synchronized to each other with as viewed by a traveller through the wormhole, even though they may appear to be becoming increasingly out of tune from another frame."

At least in the case of planar wormholes, the traveler is still going between regions of differing curvature. While a difference of one nanosecond per second would hardly be felt by a human, it still might crash a computer.

jollyreaper said...


The only thing I can think of is that the unobtanium isn't really that valuable and everyone on Earth thinks the mining company is a bunch of idiots for bothering in the first place...or rather, that the value plummeted in the years after the mission was launched.

Actually, that would be a brilliant twist, and well in keeping with some tropes this site has discussed.


Or that unobtanium can finally be synthesized.

The reason why I didn't like the naturally occurring explanation is because that means it's an alloy of standard elements subjected to the magnetic fields of Pandora and the host giant. This is something we should be able to create in the lab. Diamonds are just carbon with pressure and time. Shouldn't we be able to create that in a lab? Oh wait, we can. Gold is a different matter. It's an element. We can transmute it, sure, but at ridiculous cost. It's cheaper to mine it by a factor of a zillion raised to the power of $.

So that's why I would have preferred unobtanium be something like a clarketech artifact. Sure, we can work with it when we have some but we have no idea how to make more.

So yeah, that is an out for the sequel. Someone finally cracks how to make unobtanium in the lab and the entire interstellar economy collapses overnight. FTL coms in the Avatar setting are ridiculously expensive and a character or two per second. Any bulk data transfer was done via the starships. So what you could end up seeing is maybe a last research colony sent out on a one-way trip to Pandora and then it's just them over there working with Jake and his tribe and sending messages back and forth at lightspeed.

I'd have to think given the background fluff that the Pandora-inspired environmentalist movement back on Earth is going to play a significant factor in the future of the story. The people are realizing There's Another Way to Live(tm) and no reason to live by the dictates of the same corporations that ruined the planet in the first place.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"I'm of the (often unpopular) opinion that 2001 was one of Kubrick's weaker works, especially compared to Dr. Strangelove, Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket. For too much of the movie I was straight-up bored, and too often I had to check the book to figure out what was going on."

The one thing you can't do is judge Kubrick based on Kubrick. His entire career was a series of genre exercises. In each one, Kubrick attempted to elevate the genre above itself. And in each film he tried to do the defining materpiece of its genre by undoing genre conventions. In The Killing, he did a noir heaist film as a police procedural from the bad guys' POV. In Dr. Strangelove he did technothriller as farce (before there was really even a technothriller genre -- extra points for that). In Full Metal Jacket he really pissed everybody off by not making a pro-war or anti-war Vietnam war movie, but simply an examination of war as a phenomenon. In 2001, he totaly eschewed action, adventure, space opera, and monsters, all staples of SF. All Kubrick's movies have to be judged by what they did in genre terms, not how they play opposite other Kubrick films.

"And I've always found reading Clarke a slog."

It depends on the book. I find that the Clarke books I keep going back to are Earthlight, 2001, Rendezvous with Rama, and, when in a certain mood Childhood's End. Others I find dull to just uninteresting.

Milo said...

Raymond:

"While a difference of one nanosecond per second would hardly be felt by a human, it still might crash a computer."

A computer can simply be switched off during transit. If there are any flight computers that absolutely need to be kept running, I'm sure they can be specially-designed to be hardened against the effect. (Possibly by just running them on slower clock speeds.)

I reach the opposite conclusion from you: It's only living things that I would worry about. We don't understand our design well enough to tell how much a small time distortion would damage cellular activity, brain wiring, etc. Even if it's only a slightly increased risk of cancer, that could add up over many trips, making "wormhole shock" something analogous to a medical X-ray - not really harmful but not something you want to overdo.

However I still expect that wormhole shock wouldn't actually happen because the wormhole itself compensates for any frame discrenpancy. Remember, you may be stepping into a region of different curvature, but the wormhole mouth is also in a region of different curvature. So maybe (Sol,0y) maps to (Sirius,1y), (Sol,0.1y) maps to (Sirius,1.11y), (Sol,0.2y) maps to (Sirius,1.22y), etc. (All coordinates are in Sol's frame), but nonetheless, if you wait 24 hours on Sol (in Sol's frame) and then step through the wormhole, then you should end up at the same time as if you stepped through the wormhole and then waited 24 hours on Sirius (in Sirius's frame, which is 26.4 hours in Sol's frame).

You'd have to ask luke to confirm my interpretation, though.

Raymond said...

Tony:

Good point about Kubrick and genre. With that in mind, let me restate somewhat: I should like 2001 much more than I do, given how much I like Kubrick and how I appreciate what he was trying to do with the genre - but I don't. I should also like Clarke more than I do.

I'm also kind of surprised you like Rendezvous With Rama. It was actually the very first book I thought of when you were talking about authors who over-infodump.

Tim said...

Luke: I guess you'd be the person to ask about what are possible or probable applications of gravitational wave technology. I'm thinking that such technology will come into existence a LONG time before artificial wormholes or FTL anything, and would in fact be a prerequisite to any such devices. You mention communication, but would gravitational waves be useful for propulsion, or is this a violation of the conservation of momentum? Could gravitational waves be "lased" into linear weaponized form? Is there any plausibility to high frequency grav waves, or is this just a crackpot theory?

Luke said...

Tim:

You mention communication, but would gravitational waves be useful for propulsion, or is this a violation of the conservation of momentum?

Gravitational waves could be used for propulsion, in the same way that light can be used for propulsion. This gives you the performance of a photon rocket - the exhaust velocity is the speed of light, and your thrust is the power emitted in your gravitational wave beam divided by the speed of light.

Gravitational waves will not produce the various reactionless varieties of "gravity drives" that various sci fi authors use to try to get around the cold, hard realities of physics. That is, no falling into the gravitational potential that you create yourself.

Could gravitational waves be "lased" into linear weaponized form?

There is nothing that forbids the gravitational wave analogue of a laser (maybe that would be called a gwaser?). If the waves were made to shine on matter, they will alternately stretch and compress space-time perpendicular to the beam direction. Since this will carry the matter particles along with it, it will displace the chemical bonds holding the matter together, creating strain in the material. If the material suffers sufficient strain, it will break or otherwise fail. Even if not stressed beyond its ultimate limit, repeated cycles of expansion and contraction could heat the material to the point of failure.

Gravitational waves are expected to couple only weakly to matter. That means that most of the beam would just go right through your target without interacting with it. You would need very high intensities to get damaging effects. This will probably make gwasers extremely inefficient compared to lasers, which couple to matter ten to the thirty-sixth power more strongly (by comparing the fundamental coupling constant). The gwaser would interact less than a neutrino beam (by 25 orders of magnitude, from comparing the fundamental coupling constant).

Is there any plausibility to high frequency grav waves

Theory tells us that gravitational waves can exist at any frequency, just like electromagnetic waves.

Tim said...

Luke: Thanks for your prompt explanation!

The gravitational drive, from the way you describe it, sounds plausible but inefficient...

From what I understand, naturally occuring gravitational waves are of a low frequency, while artificially produced ones (assuming this is possible) could be of a higher frequency, as you said. But is there any operative distinction between high and low frequency gravitational waves? Would one be easier to detect over another? I know we're having a hard time detecting them as it is, but I'm assuming some kind of physics/engineering breakthrough to put such a concept into practical use.

As for gravitation itself, isn't any sort of directional application of gravity physically impossible? For instance: artificial gravity in the floor, tractor beams, inertial shielding, etc.?

Are you familiar with the work of Martin Tajmar, and do you see any validity in it?

Thank you again.

Luke said...

Tim:

From what I understand, naturally occuring gravitational waves are of a low frequency, while artificially produced ones (assuming this is possible) could be of a higher frequency, as you said. But is there any operative distinction between high and low frequency gravitational waves?

The higher the frequency of the wave, the more directional you can make it with a given size antenna or focusing device. This is just like electromagnetic waves - lasers are more directional than microwaves, which are more directional than radio.

Higher frequency waves could also excite higher energy transitions, although given the low coupling constant this might not end up being important.

Would one be easier to detect over another? I know we're having a hard time detecting them as it is, but I'm assuming some kind of physics/engineering breakthrough to put such a concept into practical use.

It is impossible to say at this point, since the science and engineering for detecting these things doesn't exist (excepting facilities such as LIGO, which still haven't seen any).

As for gravitation itself, isn't any sort of directional application of gravity physically impossible? For instance: artificial gravity in the floor, tractor beams, inertial shielding, etc.?

In theory, a hollow cylinder of extreme density rotating at speeds close to the speed of light could create a uniform "gravito-magnetic" field inside the cylinder, although this would only affect moving things (much like a magnetic field only affects moving charges).

A flat plate of extreme density would create a field mostly perpendicular to the plate (as long as you are not too close to the edges) and which wouldn't seem to fall off with distance as long as the distance was small compared to the width of the plate.

Are you familiar with the work of Martin Tajmar, and do you see any validity in it?

Extraordinary claims such as those which cannot be replicated by other labs trigger my extreme skepticism.

Brian said...

Hey Tim, both 2001 and Avatar are traditional fiction stories that use technology constrained by known science. That's what makes them both Hard SF, in my opinion. Maybe you think neither is Hard SF, but I don't see how one is and the other is not. They both have no sound in space, gravity only with rotation of the spacecraft and/or acceleration, and no FTL. Both have aliens with mysterious properties which are still based in known science.

Also, can someone inform me who the supposed ghost writer is of 2010 and later books in the series? I see no reference to it in the wikipedia page.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010:_Odyssey_Two

2010, 2061 and 3001 were no less Hard SF than 2001. Although by 3001, it becomes clear that Clarke was writing it mainly to make money and/or tie up lose ends for fans, not because he had more story. I was disappointed in the literary style as well, but that's just an extension of the point as to content.

--Brian

Tim said...

Luke: Thanks again. Where can I learn more about gravitational waves and their theoretical applications?

Brian: I would class 2001 as hard science fiction and Avatar as fantasy that plays by hard science fiction rules. What's the difference? 2001 is driven by scientific inquiry; Avatar is driven by emotions. In 2001, the alien presence is abstract, unknown, and likely beyond our comprehension; in Avatar, the aliens are us, just bigger and more brightly colored. In 2001, we begin with our ancestors' first use of tools, and travel to the point where man comes to the limit of where those tools can take him (when the computer HAL turns against him) and he must finally transcend his own creation in order to travel into another order of intelligence altogether; in Avatar we relive American history, but this time a good white guy comes to the rescue and we have a happy ending, so now we can all feel better about ourselves.

Personally, I liked much of what Avatar did right, enough to overlook the one dimensional characters and absolutely wretched dialog (didn't this guy write Aliens?) but it would have worked just as well if the ship came out of hyperspace, they landed on the planet in anti-gravity shuttles and the Navi controlled the dragons by a "psionic" link. Now imagine what kind of movie Cameron could have made with all his attention to hard science if his alien world had been truly alien...

Thucydides said...

Trying to move away from Avatar a bit; here is an article about Michio Kaku's "Physics of the Future."

Many of the tropes are familiar, and we have seen optimistic predictions before (Think of "The Age of Spiritual Machines" which puts the AI singularity only about two decades away, or nuclear fusion, which has been 20 years away for the last 50...), but it can be read as the "optimum" timeline for the plausible midfuture(tm), and a handy reference for writers looking to see just where the changes will come from. (You still have to interpolate what the second and third order effects will be, like predicting strip malls and drive-throughs from the invention of the car).

http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704433904576213683603852312.html

Tony said...

Raymond:

"I'm also kind of surprised you like Rendezvous With Rama. It was actually the very first book I thought of when you were talking about authors who over-infodump."

Let me explain the distinction I make by way of example. In Weber's Honorvers stories, the inline infodump is written in a style that would be appropriate for the endnotes or a sidebar in an academic book. And many times there's no real apparent justification for why the infodump is here rather than there. But in Rendezvous, the information is necessary to the plot at the point which it is presented, and much more anecdotal in style.

Luke said...

Tim

Where can I learn more about gravitational waves and their theoretical applications?

My go-to source for all things gravitational is Gravitation, by Misner, Thorne, and Weaver. This is a rather hefty text on general relativity with a not insignificant price tag, aimed at physics graduate students. I find it to be the easiest of the general relativity texts to understand, with a good grounding in geometry and calculus a motivated layman should be able to follow the derivations therein (basic college physics would also help), although the concepts they present are rather mind bending and take some time to digest.

A quick glance at the Wikipedia page on gravitational radiation doesn't reveal any glaring flaws
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravitational_wave
you could read through that to get an overview of the field.

Tim said...

Thucydides:

I will definitely check out Dr. Kaku's new book. I recall reading a similar book of his a few years ago, in which he described one of the uses of a massive magnetic monople (if one could ever be found or synthesized) as a magnetic drive that could move ships between the magnetospheres of planets and stars. I've looked for more details of how such a proposed system could work, but all I've come up with is UFO-style pseudo-physics websites. Do you (or does anyone) know what the plausibility of such a monopole-drive would be? It sounds dangerously close to a reactionless drive... This is also of interest since spin ice was recently demonstrated to have a monopole-like effect, creating "magnetricity." If anyone would like to postulate what magnetricity could be potentially used for, I'd love to hear it. The scientist involved with the project was rather reserved in his speculations: "perhaps improved data storage..."

Tony said...

Kaku has taken a flying leap into the crankosphere.

Luke said...

Gravitation, by Misner, Thorne, and Weaver.

Um, that should be Gravitation, by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler
http://www.amazon.com/Gravitation-Physics-Charles-W-Misner/dp/0716703440
Apologies to the late John Archibald Wheeler.

Geoffrey S H said...

@Tony:

Everything has a use...

Maybe he felt like writing a book of pure speculation.Excuse me if I've misunderstood you, but I wouldn't just call him a crank just because of one book. I haven't read any other texts, so you may be right and all/most of his books are Hubbard-grade fantasy, but even A. C. Clarke wrote a book on the supernatural from a semi-serious point of view (I found it in a lovely bookstore in my town that's closed down now unforetunetly :( ).

Geoffrey S H said...

This probably isn't the best thing to say... but what do people think about Mass Effect as an attempt to reconcile standared tropes with hard sf? Yes, Yes, I know its about as hard as star wars with added references to "deceleration", but there is still some attempts to reconcile reality with fantasy. The inverting of the "humans are special" trope I particularily liked.

Tim said...

Luke: I've read the wiki page before, and understand some of it... The Misner, Thorne, Wheeler text looks to be a little above my head, but I may be bold one day and try and crack it...

Tony: Could you elaborate?

Geoffrey: I have yet to play the game, but it comes highly recommended around here. As I understand it, they use the device of "element zero" to increase or decrease the mass within a given field by running electricity through it. My question would be: is this an example of unobtanium or pure handwavium? In other words: is this in the realm of physical possibility (maybe something to do with the Higgs field or something) or is this a Newton-defiling, themodynamics-violating, relativity-smashing impossibility? My main concern is that if you have FTL (and ignoring all the other problems that raises) by any means other than ancient alien artifcats, it presumes some ability to control gravity/bend space and time in an unnatural and asymmetrical manner. Assuming this can be done at all (with some sort of undiscovered "exotic" matter), does it also mean we automatically have artificial gravity floors, anti-gravity lifters, STL "warp" reactionless drives, force shields and all the other "soft" tropes we'd like to avoid in a "hard" or "hard-ish" setting?

Anonymous said...

Tim said:"My main concern is that if you have FTL (and ignoring all the other problems that raises) by any means other than ancient alien artifcats, it presumes some ability to control gravity/bend space and time in an unnatural and asymmetrical manner."

So you're saying that to have FTL, then you have to make the universe perform an unnatural act with itself? Aliens as prudes being the answer to the Fermi Paradox? That actually makes sense in a weird sort of way...

Ferrell

Scott said...

My initial reaction to the Mass Effect universe (and Element Zero) is gratuitous handwavium, although there was a theoretical physics 'wild hair' that could create thrust via electromagnetic manipulation of a quantum vacuum... at least that what I understood it to say.

No, I can't find the reference right now, and it's driving me up the wall that I can't find it!

Rick said...

A rather belated welcome to new commenters!

My main concern is that if you have FTL (and ignoring all the other problems that raises) by any means other than ancient alien artifacts, it presumes some ability to control gravity/bend space and time in an unnatural and asymmetrical manner.

I think that a network of natural, primordial wormholes also does the job, requiring only that learn how to identify and traverse them, not generate them. This gets rid of the need for ancient alien artifacts, though it still leaves the general problem of cosmic background history.

On Clarke's 2001 sequels, my impression is that none of the Big Three aged very well. (But how much of that is having read their earlier works in the Golden Age of SF, i.e. when I was about 14?)

Neutrino78x said...

Tim, well, the world of avatar is alien. On earth, we don't have natural computers where the whole world is linked together with natural, biological links. Sure, there is the Gaia hypothesis, but on Avatar you have it in a literal sense. So, that's your mysterious alien.

Regardless, a lot of Hard SF is like Avatar. Look at The Forever War. Same basic thing, exploring a part of our real past (the Vietnam War, contact with native american tribes) through the use of Hard Science/current technology. Hasn't the author of this very blog endorsed Hard SF stories in the past which deal with such themes? No, off hand, I can't think of examples from this blog. But I seem to recall that there are such entries.

2001 could easily have been a Star Trek movie if the humans had warp drive and all that. ST has had several episodes with similar themes. But 2001 is Hard SF because it uses the known laws of physics and technology that is an extrapolation of what we have today.

btw the wikipedia entry for 2001 the book leads us to this quote from Gregory Benford, Hard SF author, in the LA Times: "I'd say he was THE major hard science-fiction writer -- that is, the writer of science fiction that is scientifically scrupulous -- in the second half of the 20th century" referring to Aurthur C. Clarke. See, by that definition, Avatar is clearly Hard SF.

http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/la-me-clarke19mar19,1,1990610,full.story

Avatar and 2001 are both Hard SF stories dealing with contact with an alien species.

--Brian

Rick said...

Oh, one more note on Avatar - from my perspective its SF hardness is orthogonal to its quality (or lack of) as a story.

I don't think SF, even hard SF, has to be 'about' science and technology, any more than a swashbuckler is 'about' 17th century sailing ships and Caribbean politics. Those things are setting, which should inform the plot but need not drive it.

Tony - Interesting observation about Kubrick and genre!

Raymond said...

Geoffrey:

I love and adore the Mass Effect series, and it tries so hard to justify its space opera tech. Eezo's an isotope of Handwavium, though, based on the limits of the physics we know. (Actually, good chunks of mass effect tech remind me of Heim theory, if you replace rapidly rotating superconductors with element zero).

Question for Luke, however: if there were a method of producing negative energy densities relatively cheaply, what could we do with it?

Brian said...

Also, Michio Kaku is a real theoretical physicist, with a doctorate in the subject. He has forgotten more about physics than most of us commenting on this blog have learned!! He's one of the world's leading researchers into String Theory, the Theory of Everything, combining all the fundamental forces of nature.

--Brian

Raymond said...

RE: Kaku

For the record, his Hyperspace was a formative text for me. I read it when I was twelve. Took me a decade to catch up. So I'm willing to cut him a little slack if he's getting overly optimistic in his old age.

Milo said...

Rick:

"I think that a network of natural, primordial wormholes also does the job, requiring only that learn how to identify and traverse them, not generate them."

The problem is that they have to be pretty common to be of any use. If the nearest natural wormhole is ten lightyears away, then it's basically useless for your dreams of an interstellar vacation.

If there is a wormhole or two in our own solar system, then where, and why haven't we detected it yet? (Okay, so how would we detect a wormhole, anyway?)

This is also a problem regarding finding natural antimatter, magnetic monopoles, etc. Even if it exists, you'll probably need to already have FTL to find any.

Tim said...

Brian: The biological computer stuff was pretty inventive, but the Navi were certainly not "alien" in any convincing way, falling more into the category of "bumpy forehead aliens" of Star Trek fame. They were nothing more than a reflection of ourselves: bigger, brighter and more beautiful, but human nonetheless. If the aliens of Pandora had been some kind of theoretical extrapolation of sentient life from, say, squids or starfish or lichens, I'd be a little more inclined to agree with your assessment.

Of course, future installments may reveal that both races had a common ancestor, in which case it will slide up the scale, somewhat.

It would also be nice if the dialog was a little more fresh next time around...

neutrino78x said...

Well, people have identified The Forever War as Hard SF on here, and the aliens in that book also had two eyes, two arms, and a mouth, although they did have more than two legs, and their legs were said to resemble more a snake or salamander than a man. So if your strongest argument on Avatar not being Hard SF is that some of the aliens resembled men too closely, I think James Cameron should gladly concede that minor point.

Also the ships in Avatar were a lot more realistic than Forever War; the latter postulates "tachyon rockets" which can maintain accelerations of 15+ times the acceleration of gravity on Earth for a month. Tachyons have never been observed in nature; even if they do exist, it is not clear how ejecting them out the back of the spacecraft would be better than using a high power (1 GW+) VASIMR. Yet, some on here would suggest that Forever War is somehow more realistic than Avatar. Pah!

Both are Hard SF.

I think it might be interesting to have a Hard SF version of Star Trek. A couple of recent TV series came close to that: Virtuality and Defying Gravity. Both of them ended far too soon! The former only had one episode (a two hour pilot) and the latter had I think 15 episodes total! Virtuality had a ship that used an Orion-esque propulsion system, and Defying Gravity used a nuclear powered plasma drive! Did anybody see those?

--Brian

Thucydides said...

The hardness and softness of SF is a matter of "taste"; I would define the hardness of 2001 and Forever War by how the science is integral to the plot. "Tachyon" rockets in Forever War are forgivable because the truly SFnal concept is how the characters react to the changes wrought by time dilation.

There is really nothing comparable in AVATAR or most SF, since for various reasons writers and producers are content to dress familiar tropes in bright costumes and call it Science Fiction (and customers are willing to spend money on that).

Tim said...

Brian:

James Cameron did in fact make a hard science fiction movie: The Abyss. The alien presence is mysterious, abstract, and takes a great deal of effort to communicate with on even the most basic level.

In The Forever War, humans can't understand the aliens at all (other than by killing each other) until [spoiler] the human race itself is transformed into billions of clones of a single individual, just like the aliens.

In 2001, the alien presence is never represented outside of a black monolith, and what we can infer about it is based on how it transforms the pre-human, and later the single astronaut who interacts with it.

In Avatar, the Navi look like us, talk like us, act like us, have the same facial expressions, etc. because they ARE us. In fact, they are made more emotionally relatable to the audience than most (all?) of the human visitors.

Which is fine. I liked Avatar. I can't wait for the sequel. But, as you suggest, if that hard-SF ship they arrived in could have been put into a more "hard star trek" type of situation, I would have liked it even better.

BTW, my favorite Cameron movie? Aliens. Most Hard SF? Not at all, but best story and characters of anything he's done.

ElAntonius said...

Outside of the element zero, Mass Effect tries REALLY hard to get things to at least pass a sniff test.

Mass Effect is more of a deconstruction of both space opera and hard SF. It attempts to take the tropes, then find the minimum handwavium to make it work.

But in either case, I think one of the consistent things on this blog is that on some level even diamond hard sci fi needs some amount of handwaving, if only to justify why we're in space at all. So I don't think fanciful technology or other handwaves automatically disqualify it to space opera.

I agree with others here...the "hardness" of a story is defined not by how realistic the technology is, but by how that technology informs the plot.

In that vein, Star Wars is a good example of REALLY soft: the plot informs the technology...if a lightsaber suddenly can't cut through a door because the plot requires the heroes to be delayed, then that will be shown.

Mass Effect comes off as pretty hard by that definition: everything in the story is defined by and limited to the capabilities of the titular technology.

Sure, the hardest of the hard stories will go farther than that, but I think we can generally agree that physics textbooks don't make for good light reading :P.

ElAntonius said...

Tim: Aliens is funny...by technology, it's actually pretty hard. I don't recall seeing anything outside of known science (outside of stasis, but that's closer than FTL).

But it's a good example: the technology doesn't really inform the plot: the basic story would work almost entirely without regard of setting. Give the troops muskets and have them land on an unexplored island, and it still works.

jollyreaper said...

Your mileage may vary, of course, but for me the story is everything. I can forgive and overlook a lot if the story is good enough, the characters compelling enough, and the overall experience enjoyable enough. But without that it all falls apart into crap that can be picked to pieces.

As an example of it working, the first Matrix. There are a couple of big holes there and I'll only list a couple:
1. Using humans as batteries? Makes no sense. We find out later executive meddling caused that change -- the original plan was that the AI's needed human brains as cheap wetware and they had to be conscious brains, not braindead. Does not explain the need to preserve the rest of the body.
2. Why are the Agents incapable of shooting straight? They're computers. Reaperbots in Quake are ridiculously accurate. Could be handwaved to say that the humans are using a fuzzer that keeps the Agents from precisely determining their location, agents are firing at a probability cone instead of a clear target.
3. Why are there enough holes to allow humans to run through the Matrix to begin with? I figured the explanation could be that the machines simply don't understand the technology. They can build add-ons to the Matrix but don't understand the machinery or the software that's running it. Maybe they just can't think human enough to do so. Never elaborated in the movie.

But with all those holes and all the ones I didn't mention it's still completely awesome. I enjoyed myself thoroughly. It only fell apart with the crappy sequels.

Another really good example of "cool sustaining disbelief" is Cowboy Bebop. Mentioned that one before. Schizotech all over the place but the style and awesome music and great characters had you thoroughly believing it even though it was about as grounded in reality as Alice in Wonderland. It wasn't science fiction or science fantasy but more like a fantasy sundae with a few scifi sprinkles. Doesn't matter. It's GREAT.

Tony said...

Re: Kaku

Used to be he wrote books about speculative, but still essentially mainstream science. I heard him on CNN last week, talking about the Jpanaese nuclear incident. Of course he got to do a plug on his latest book, and he was talking about people in 2100 being like gods. Aside from the fact that the rhetoric alone is ridiculous hyperbole, he delivered the idea in a totally positivist tone. Gods, as we all know, have their negative side too, made all the more so by their godlike powers. That's why I think he's firmly aligned himself with the cranks.

Re: Hard SF

I can't see how Avatar could be rationally categorized as hard SF. It has some scientifically accurate features, but they're totally orthogonal to the main story. And a lot of the things that people are making "hard" justifications for...well, that's precisely the point -- one has to conjecture out his posterior orrifice to make it hard.

Forever War, on the other hand, has special relativity as a plot driver. It's other gross physical concepts may be questionable today, but they were at least semi-reasonable speculative science in the 1970s. Even the "tachyon" everything was just code for really high energy density. Certainly a lot of the plot devices and complications were pure physics. The acceleration tanks were a neat trick, as was the consideration of how their use would be affected by a severely injured occupant. The consideration of time dilation effects on relative technological sophistication was both insightful and well done. Then there's the (accidental, but highly effective) relativistic kinetic energy attack, genetic engineering, limb regeneration, etc. Arguably it was one of the first really hard SF novels ever written.

Re: Kubrick and genre

What I had to say was hardly a major insight. It's a pretty standard interpretation. I just took a film class in college.

Tony said...

On a slightly skewed -- but still topical -- note, some films are bad SF, but good entertainment. Everybody, if he were honest, would admit to several guilty pleasures of this type. For me, it's the one film that hard SF fans love to hate: Independence Day.

Luke said...

Raymond:

if there were a method of producing negative energy densities relatively cheaply, what could we do with it?

If you could produce unlimited negative energy, you could get as much useful energy or work as you wanted by making more negative energy. Due to conservation of energy, for every amount of negative energy you create you get positive energy as well, which you can use to do work. You just end up with a negative energy pollution problem and you end up needing to dump it some place - perhaps in wormholes or warp drives or whatever, or use it to clean up inconvenient black holes or some such, or dump it on your enemies to annihilate their mass without causing collateral damage.

However, quantum mechanics indicates that negative energy is always bounded by positive energy regions, and the magnitude of the positive energy is always greater than that of the negative energy. If this holds, you don't get your unlimited free work. Instead you need to confine your negative energy in positive energy containers such that the container ends up with a positive net mass/energy.

If you have the latter condition, there are possibilities for using negative energy for the usual FTL suspects, or for the aforementioned getting rid of black holes. There are probably lots of other uses for the stuff, which would become obvious once we had it in hand but is not so obvious to us now.

Tim said...

Luke: So could (assuming we could build such negative energy containers) this negative energy be used for "anti-gravity" or "reactionless drive" applications? I'm going to guess the answer is no, but could you explain why not? Thank you for your patience. :)

Also, would you recommend "Black Holes and Time Warps" by Kip Thorne, for those less mathematically-abled individuals who might find "Gravitation" a little daunting?

Thucydides said...

A negative energy container sounds like a short term way to evade the Second Law of Thermodynamics, by dumping waste heat into the bottle.

I'm sure the physics police will be by with a summons soon enough ("Thermodynamics isn't a suggestion; it's the Law!"), but if things do work this way, you have the potential to "supercharge" normal physical process', computing and so on for short periods of time in highly localized situations.

Don't drop the bottle.....

Luke said...

Tim:

So could (assuming we could build such negative energy containers) this negative energy be used for "anti-gravity" or "reactionless drive" applications?

If you are talking about the containers that satisfy the predictions of quantum mechanics, then no, because the net mass of the container plus the negative energy will always be positive. So it will produce a gravitational attraction, will have a momentum in the direction of its motion, and so on. You could still use it for FTL spacetime geometries, because these often only need limited regions of negative energy and can have positive overall mass/energy and regions of positive mass/energy.

Also, would you recommend "Black Holes and Time Warps" by Kip Thorne, for those less mathematically-abled individuals who might find "Gravitation" a little daunting?

I enjoyed it. It has been a long time since I read it, but I did read it back before I got my various academic degrees, and I thought I understood it at the time, so it is probably a good choice.

Tim said...

Luke: OK, good to know. I'd actually prefer an SF universe with (limited) FTL, but without the overused tropes of artificial gravity, deflector shields, etc. My main concern has been that if you have FTL, all those other applications could be derived from the same physics/engineering principles.

Jollyreaper: I dug Cowboy Bebop as well, but I didn't think it was THAT soft. At least they had gravity created by rotation, reaction-based drives, mention of terraforming, etc. Actually, I think what made it most convincing was the avoidance of space opera tropes in favor of film noir and HK action tropes.

Raymond said...

Tim:

"I dug Cowboy Bebop as well, but I didn't think it was THAT soft. At least they had gravity created by rotation, reaction-based drives, mention of terraforming, etc. Actually, I think what made it most convincing was the avoidance of space opera tropes in favor of film noir and HK action tropes."

Hear, hear! Love and adore Cowboy Bebop. (And Yoko Kanno reigns triumphant. Go check her Evil Website listing.)

It did slip in a few space opera tropes (Heavy Metal Queen, for example, or some of the dogfights with syndicate fighters), but by and large gave at least a nod in the direction of physics. And since most of the series was more personal in scale, it didn't come up often enough to get them into real trouble. Usually. My one real episode-independent gripe was how bloody quickly everything got terraformed.

jollyreaper said...


Jollyreaper: I dug Cowboy Bebop as well, but I didn't think it was THAT soft. At least they had gravity created by rotation, reaction-based drives, mention of terraforming, etc. Actually, I think what made it most convincing was the avoidance of space opera tropes in favor of film noir and HK action tropes.


Did you miss the part about the Bebop being a space-faring fishing trawler? And how they seem to have gone to great lengths to import third world squalor and poverty to all of the terraformed locations? :)

For realistic, used futures I'm a big fan of including unintended consequences. The idea of Downbelow on Babylon 5 makes a lot of sense in a "boy, we sure didn't see that coming" kind of way. People go out there, run short on money, become part of the station's homeless population. Nowhere to deport them to, no one will pay the freight to ship them home, and the utopians say "Wait, it's not supposed to be that way."

But the third world stuff in Bebop doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you think about it. Gas-powered cars and the like? I could see Disneyfying residential areas on stations to make things homier, especially in an O'Neill habitat. Make it like Epcot. I've seen some great pics of Venice where you've got the water passing through densely-built apartments and you could just see this as being a way of making high-density housing interesting and friendly. All the machinery would be "below" ground, in the windowless shell of the habitat. The humans would want to live on the inside of the cylinder, have windows and easily walk "outside." And so it follows that we would try to make the environment look as much like an idealized human city as possible.

At the same time, though, it would be so much more organized. Proper mass transit is an absolute given. I know for proper urban planning there are ideals the planners strive for like ensuring access to transit is no more than a quarter mile walk from any given location, siting emergency services for rapid response, placing schools for neighborhoods, etc. This can all still be rather chaotic on Earth but would have to be planned far more meticulously on a station, even if they try to give the city elements an organic look. It's not naturally developed, it's planned down to the nth degree which is why I call it Disneyfied, not to mean saccharine and banal but with meticulous control of all the details.

jollyreaper said...

Japanese scifi is kind of funny because they'll try and show the interesting things American scifi glosses over but then make some really weird decisions. Gundam has O'Neill habs all over the place and strangely the interiors are rural Japanese countrysides transferred into space. People are living in earth-style houses in the countryside with rolling hills and everything. It would have to be denser than that.

A more recent show was Macross Frontier, part of the Macross series. (Other people might know it as the first third of the Robotech series.) Anyway, the colony ships have enormous habitat domes pretty much exactly like the ones from Silent Running. Ginormous in scope, millions of people in the fleet. But the downtown areas were designed completely like nice, Earthy 21st century cities complete with cars driven by people for transit. *thunks head against keyboard* I'd love to see some real imagination in these urban designs, not just idiotic transplanting of the modern day.

That's actually back to one of the gripes earlier in this thread (or was it a previous thread?) where the scifi future seems to be everything identical today but with FTL, no imagination or extrapolation of the implications or just showing off new ideas. I hate that.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SkyTran

This guy might seem like a crank along the lines of the Moller Air Car but at least it's a new idea. I'd be happy if scifi would at least throw something like this in or include a proper horizontal elevator in a giant arcology. Stretch the brain a bit, please!

jollyreaper said...


It did slip in a few space opera tropes (Heavy Metal Queen, for example, or some of the dogfights with syndicate fighters), but by


Don't forget "sword beats gun" in a fight.

and large gave at least a nod in the direction of physics. And since most of the series was more personal in scale, it didn't come up often enough to get them into real trouble. Usually.


It's the kind of show where if you think about all the pieces individually you don't see how it could all go together and then when you see it as a whole you're gobsmacked and just have to nod your head in deep respect.

The movie, sadly, got everything wrong and thus the pieces didn't meld. The magic was lost.

My one real episode-independent gripe was how bloody quickly everything got terraformed.

There are a lot more holes than that but it just makes everything work by being awesome. I think one of my favorite holes in all scifi was the Kurt Russell movie Soldier that featured a garbage planet where all sorts of junk from Earth was sent, including a discarded aircraft carrier. When you stop to consider the energetic cost to move all that material to another freakin' planet and how nobody even thought of recycling the scrap... That movie was not awesome so these yawning sinkholes become the whole point of the movie.

Tim said...

Jollyreaper: If you're looking for some Japanese SF of a little harder vintage, you should check out the manga 2001 Nights, by Yukinobu Hoshino. I read this a while back when it first came out in an English edition, but I'm sure you can read it online, if you haven't come across it yet.

jollyreaper said...

Never heard of that! Will have to throw it on the pile. Was very impressed with the anime Planetes. 2001-style hard SF (sans the Monolith part.)

Tim said...

Jollyreaper: If you liked Planettes, you will definitely enjoy this one. It's basically a collection of short stories spanning the future history of man's exploration of space, heavily influenced by the hard SF English and American writers of the fifties and sixties. The FTL, once it is invented, is handled in as "realistic" a manner as possible.

jollyreaper said...

Looking forward to it, Tim. Haven't read the Planetes manga but I hear it was far more fantastic than hard-researched, unlike the anime which went to great pains to be realistic.

Scott said...

SkyTran was at least presented at a professional conference. It's got some professional credit.

Moller, on the other hand, isn't a crank. He's a crook, with multiple securities fraud convictions.

There is one anime I need to get: STRAIN: Strategic Armored Infantry. It spends a lot of time dealing with the effects of relativistic time dilation on a society (before it dives down a quantum-entanglement/FTL comms rabbithole).

Raymond said...

jollyreaper:

The Planetes manga was harder than the anime. Better, too.

Neutrino78x said...

Again, if you look at the plot of 2001, that could easily be a Star Trek episode. They did several episodes where the Enterprise encounters advanced aliens.

But 2001 and Avatar, as opposed to Star Trek, are Hard SF because they are using "hard science". Both Avatar and Star Trek are science fiction, but Avatar is Hard SF because it doesn't violate natural law. You guys who think Avatar is not Hard SF are using a weird definition. To me, Hard SF is the same as all other SF, except it tries to have accurate science. So Star Trek = space opera, Defying Gravity = Hard SF.

No one is having to stretch to make Avatar Hard SF...they used a matter/antimatter rocket to get to 70% c or whatever, nothing violates physics there. They had to spin the ship to get gravity, and they had the crew in statis for the long journey, nothing violating physics there. The mountains were floating because there were natural superconductors there, again, no violation. They wanted elves and floating mountains and designed a story around that? Sure, I guess, but you could say the same about 2001 (they wanted a weird color sequence and alien artifact, and designed everything else from there).

Alien (the Ridley Scott movie) is not Hard SF at all! :-O :-/ It has sound in space and gravity floors. It may or may not have FTL, I don't recall them specifying how long it took to get to different places. So, SF, yes, but not Hard SF. :)

--Brian

neutrino78x said...

I think SkyTran is an awesome concept, it combines public transit with the flexibility of a car. Pretty much everything that comes from General Atomics is awesome. :)

--Brian

neutrino78x said...

Tony, again, Michio Kaku is one of the leading researchers in String Theory. Maybe you are not familiar with it, but it is mainstream science, very mainstream. It is one of several competing "theories of everything." Nobody thinks he is kook. He is a credible scientist.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michio_Kaku

I agree with the idea that in 2100 we will be like gods compared to today. Computers will be far more powerful, nanotechnology will probably replace assembly lines for a lot of things, it might extend human lifespan dramatically, we might possibly have controlled fusion, there will probably be independent nations on Mars.

In general, we tend to overestimate what can be done in the short term and underestimate what can be done in the long term.

--Brian

jollyreaper said...


I agree with the idea that in 2100 we will be like gods compared to today.


I'm more skeptical. I'd like to think we can reach the ideals we're dreaming about but I'm also prepared for the possibility that 2100 will look pretty much like 2011 with a few new buildings, cars look cosmetically different, and we've got neater handheld gadgets.

I won't tell you you're right or wrong because I have no idea how it'll turn out. I just wouldn't be surprised either way. I'm rooting for utopia. Doesn't cost me anything. :)

Tim said...

Brian: My concern with the future is that SOME of us will be as gods, while the rest of us will be serfs to the techno-elite.

Regarding Alien, and any other movie or show with "gravity floors," I would give them a pass based on the incredible difficulty of shooting actors on wires for every single scene. Written, drawn or animated SF, I'm not going to be so generous.

Anonymous said...

I just read an entry on Atomic Rockets website about bisaes in writing Science Fiction, specificly about how spacecraft are designed; the author of the piece asked the question: how do you design a deep spacecraft? He went on to further discuss how our personal biases tend to shape our expectations of how technical details should or should not be presented in written, filmed, drawn, and animated sci fi and when to overlook transgressions due to technical limitations, and when to not overlook them.

So, when I design a deep space spaceship, I always put in spin sections and radiator fins, not have them accelerate greater than more then one percent of a g (unless it is chemfuel), and usually have the ship surounded with a powerful magnetic shield in addition to its physical rad shielding. Those are my biases, what are yours?

Ferrell

Thucydides said...

Using hard science does not automatically make a story hard SF.

Avatar could have been told using ultra realistic wooden sailing ships, with colonists armed with the latest matchlocks going to mine for a valuable metal entering an alien environment only to encounter an alien society already established on the land. The Jamestown colonists lived the story for real, and Walt Disney told the story in animated form as a musical.

If the story were to revolve around the effects of time dilation, or the planetary brain reaching out to orbit and dealing with the annoying humans, or some totally unexpected property of "unobtanium", then I would agree that Avatar was indeed hard SF, rather than an old trope dressed in very bright SF costumes. 2001 was about the evolution of intelligence (ape to man, man to machine or man to god) and even the effects of intelligence (apes learned to use tools to both feed themselves and also to kill each other; HAL runs the spacecraft and has literal powers of life and death over the crew). There was a certain amount of "magic" (for want of a better term), but overall the story rested on the concepts, hence its inclusion in Hard SF.

There are plenty of scientists who can write for the "general" public and are willing to share informed speculation (including their own ideas how the science and technology they are describing will affect the general public), any of whom can be used as a reference to launch your own ideas. In essence they might be describing the 22nd century "automobile", your job is to use that and describe the "drive throughs" that result. Blogs like NextBigFuture, Centauri Dreams and so on perform similar functions, with greater or lesser rigour (often that is up to you to determine).

Hard SF is difficult to write; you have to create engaging characters and show how they react to the strange situations that speculative science or technology put them in. Most authors dress well known tropes in bright SF costumes, and I don't mind that too much if it is well done.

Avatar had plot holes that you could fly a spacecraft through (lets start with any society able to generate terrawatts of energy to drive a Starship suffering from any sort of energy, environmental or other crisis to begin with), which left a sort of gnawing sensation in the back of my mind while watching 9the action was fast paced, so the critical faculties were left to catch up with plenty of "yeah, but's)

neutrino78x said...

Thucydides said...

"Using hard science does not automatically make a story hard SF."

Well, I guess that's where I disagree with most of you.

Can we at least agree that Avatar is SF??? In the sense that 2001, The Forever War, Star Wars and Star Trek are all SF?? Many SF stories are similar to Avatar.

So, if it is SF, the question becomes, is it "space opera" or "hard sf", and my answer is that it is Hard SF.

Avatar is basically an episode of Star Trek with accurate science (no gravity floors, no FTL, no sound in space), that makes it Hard SF in my book. I mean, it is no less Hard SF than is 2001. Both involve first contact with a mysterious alien (the monolith in 2001, the tree/organic planetary network in Avatar), and both use accurate science/technology.

The Planetary Network did do something unexpected (although not unexpected in the context of the movie); it organized all the lower animals to attack the humans. It also is able to transfer a human mind into a Navi body.

Like I said...I think you guys are just automatically against Avatar because it was a popular movie. :( But don't forget that 2001 the movie was popular also.

--Brian

Milo said...

While we're on the subject of hard science, I would like to point out there is no evolutionary advantage for animals to develop the ability to let another species control their minds.

And I'm really, really tired of psychic aliens, hive mind aliens, and psychic hive mind aliens. Can't Hollywood come up with a more original (and scientifically plausible) way to make their aliens alien?

Tim said...

Ferrel: Which section of Atomic Rockets were you referring to? Could you give us a link?

Tim said...

Milo: "And I'm really, really tired of psychic aliens, hive mind aliens, and psychic hive mind aliens. Can't Hollywood come up with a more original (and scientifically plausible) way to make their aliens alien?"

Personally, I'm sick of aliens being either saviors or invaders in movies. Couldn't they be something more strange and unrelatable than that? The independent movie "Monsters" offers some much more believable aliens, completely indifferent to humanity.

There's a great section at hardSF.org that addresses the overabundance of "psionics" in science fiction.

Brian said...

Milo, I don't think it was implausible in Avatar. :-/ There were no psychic links in that movie; the animals were physically linked, using some kind of biochemical reaction to communicate. They can't communicate in the hive mind unless they are physically connected. The tree is able to store data uploaded by the humanoids.

Hive minds are common in nature, though. Ants and bees have little intelligence individually, but acting as a group, they accomplish interesting things like building anthills and digging tunnels. :) That is also not a psychic link; ants communicate with chemicals left on the ground. I watch them a lot at my loser minimum wage job. I enjoy putting granola crumbs near them and seeing how they will get it into their kingdom underneath the pavement. :)

--Brian

neutrino78x said...

The world renowned Stanford University, here in the San Francisco Bay Area (specifically silicon valley, which is also my region), has people who study ants to discover more facts about how their hive mind works.

http://news.stanford.edu/pr/93/931115Arc3062.html

In that Hard SF Book Einstein's Bridge (which I mistakenly identified as the bridge before), it has an interesting description of why a hive mind might be more inclined to violence. The reason is that the hive mind has an entire planet to itself, and has never had the experience of having to live with other minds, as men do. So any other mind could be a threat to it.

http://www.amazon.com/Einsteins-Bridge-John-Cramer/dp/0380792796/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1301246377&sr=8-1

(hopefully people are able to use these links, even though they occupy more than one line? it works for me on Firefox...just select the whole thing, copy it, then open a new tab and paste it into the URL box.)

--Brian

neutrino78x said...

Tim, well if the aliens are completely indifferent to humanity, how then do we end up interacting with them? We can observe them from a distance without interacting with them, but if we interact, they have to be either a savior or an invader.

I use that hardsf.org site to help me find good free SF ebooks to read on my Palm m515, but I think the opinions presented in that psychic section are somewhat narrow minded.

In his telepathy section, he claims that it is somehow implausible that insects might form a hive mind, but there are many such examples in nature, as I said before!!! Ants and bees. Birds flying as a group. Sardines acting as a group. It seems plausible that, given time, ants could develop collective consciousness, as they now have collective intelligence (to some extent). He admits he does not know as much about science as Charles Sheffield, the physicist, but you don't have to be a scientist to observe ants having a hive mind to some extent. Any layman can see that.

His discussion of the existence of God is somewhat offensive. The different interpretations of God are irrelevant to to existence of it. Either God exists or does not. Christians and Hindus disagreeing on the nature of God does not change whether or not God exists, any more than do the differing opinions between physicists as to the nature and properties of black holes have an effect on whether or not they exist. Either there are black holes or there are not. Either there is a God, or there is not. No one says, "Newton and Einstein disagree on the nature of gravity, therefore there is no such thing as gravity."

I am a Deist; I believe there is a Creator who wrote the laws of physics, then left the universe/multiverse on autopilot. Others believe in more intervention on the part of God, others believe God is multiple gods, but these are just different interpretations.

--Brian

Rick said...

"Using hard science does not automatically make a story hard SF."

Well, I guess that's where I disagree with most of you.


For what it is worth, I'm with the latter 'inclusive' school - any SF that is careful about its science qualifies. With the proviso that there can be stories where the (accurate) scientific details are so far offstage as to be invisible to the reader.

But YMMV on this - there is a distinct and broadly even division of opinion on this subject, so far as I can tell. There is also an argument that 'hard SF' is more a matter of style than substance. Roughly, if the ships are angular and look Realistic [TM], we will tend to take it as hard SF, even if the science in the story actually has a very high coefficient of iffiness.

Milo said...

Brian:

"There were no psychic links in that movie; the animals were physically linked, using some kind of biochemical reaction to communicate. They can't communicate in the hive mind unless they are physically connected."

And where did this network come from?

I'm not saying it's physically implausible, I'm saying it's biologically implausible. Something that ordered doesn't occur spontaneously.

I might buy it if it was artificial technology from an incredibly advanced civilization. Not a natural occurence.


"Hive minds are common in nature, though. Ants and bees have little intelligence individually, but acting as a group, they accomplish interesting things like building anthills and digging tunnels. :)"

Ants and bees aren't hive minds. They're just very social individuals who are strongly devoted to the good of the group - but still pursue that good autonomously.

Maybe they can make smarter decisions together than they can alone, but so can humans.

Additionally, here the cooperation is between members of the same species (and occasional very limited cases of symbiosis). Even different species of ants are more likely to wage war on one another than help each other. Ants are not going to suddenly drop everything they're doing to help an anteater or a human.



neutrino78x:

"In that Hard SF Book Einstein's Bridge (which I mistakenly identified as the bridge before), it has an interesting description of why a hive mind might be more inclined to violence. The reason is that the hive mind has an entire planet to itself, and has never had the experience of having to live with other minds, as men do."

Fail!

-1 point for misidentifying one of the most common Hollywood hive mind fallacies as hard SF.

Ants and bees do not have a planetwide hive. Each hive is an independant community, with (usually) no loyalty to other hives, even of the same species.

And this is the only way they can logically evolve. Evolution works by trying multiple variations and seeing which ones survive. Thus, evolution per definition requires there to be multiple separate individuals of a species at any given time. Since a single hive has only one female reproductive member (the queen), it is therefore necessary to have multiple separate hives.

(Anyway, if a hive mind was a unique entity, in that the only other beings it has any experience interacting with are lesser animals, then that would justify it at least at first looking down on anything that isn't itself as nonsentient, and potentially commiting "violence" in the sense of hunting or culling - but at the same time it wouldn't be particularly good at waging war on a sentient species. It would not automatically be especially aggressive against what it knows are other sophonts, since it never met any before and so such aggressiveness could never evolve. And if it attacks us thinking we're mindless animals, pretty soon it's either going to realize its mistake or we're going to destroy it.)

Milo said...

Tim:

"much more believable aliens, completely indifferent to humanity."

Well, I can't say for sure how aliens would think, but do consider that humans are by no means indifferent to aliens, as SETI shows. Whether we're planning to learn from them, exploit them, or preemptively kill them all out of fear, a lot of people really want to meet them and the remainder really hope we don't.

And the fact is that certain mental patterns are going to recur, even across different biota, because they just make sense. It's evolutionarily advantage for a life form to pay attention to its surroundings. And as long as we live in the same universe as these aliens, we're going to count as their surroundings. (Aliens in the Lovecraftian "so alien they don't even play by the same laws of physics as us" mold, umm, violate the laws of physics. Duh.) And any species with advanced technology is going to care about some of the same things we do - for example, making advanced technology. (Also, eating, reproducing, not dying, and staying on good terms with other members of its own species - an instinct which, as human behavior shows, can be easily extended to apply to things of different species as well.)



neutrino78x:

"Christians and Hindus disagreeing on the nature of God does not change whether or not God exists, any more than do the differing opinions between physicists as to the nature and properties of black holes have an effect on whether or not they exist."

Black holes still behave approximately the same way, regardless of the exact details any physicist believes in. By contrast, the word "god" is used by different religions to refer to vastly different things which can only loosely even be classified as similar. (Shinto, for example, doesn't even have a notion of "god" per se - they have spirits, or kami, and their "gods" are simply the most powerful of the kami but are not by nature different from a minor spirit inhabiting your backyard, which may well be weaker than an average human. This is very different from, say, the Abrahammic notion of God as creator of the universe, outside and predating it. Just consider that it would be pretty easy to reinterpret Christian cosmology as a polytheistic system with YHWH as the supreme deity and the archangels as lesser deities in the pantheon. And some Christian groups do pray to angels, saints, or Mary. So it's basically arbitrary that they choose a definition of "god" under which there would be only one.)

Anonymous said...

Ok, sorry about that! the link is http://atomicrockets.posterous.com/

Ferrell

Tim said...

Brian: I mean indifferent as not interested in us or our society, at least until we attack them, at which point they will defend themselves. I guess they could be qualified as "invaders" in the way that zebra mussels are, but they are not intent on wiping out all humankind, like most Hollywood aliens. You should watch the movie and decide for yourself.

Tony said...

neutrino78x:

"Tony, again, Michio Kaku is one of the leading researchers in String Theory. Maybe you are not familiar with it, but it is mainstream science, very mainstream. It is one of several competing "theories of everything." Nobody thinks he is kook. He is a credible scientist."

I know what string theory is. It's actually a collection of theories, none of which has made any testable predictions. And I know who Kaku is. In fact, I have a copy of his Parallel Worlds.

Being good at one thing -- especially something that amounts to a set of mathematical curiosities, and little more -- is hardly qualification to be taken seriously in unrelated fields, which, unfortunately for Dr. Kaku's reputation in the future, includes just about everything he presumes to "report" on in his dabbles in futurism.

"I agree with the idea that in 2100 we will be like gods compared to today. Computers will be far more powerful, nanotechnology will probably replace assembly lines for a lot of things, it might extend human lifespan dramatically, we might possibly have controlled fusion, there will probably be independent nations on Mars."

Well...as a collection of tropes from bad 1980s-90s science fiction, that's a decent list.

"In general, we tend to overestimate what can be done in the short term and underestimate what can be done in the long term."

The nwe should be far past personal helicopters and my vactaions on the Moon, shouldn't we? Oh, wait...those things don't even exist, and probably never will, even though they were predicted at least 60 years ago.

neutrino78x said...

Tony, vacations on the moon will happen; it is a question of when! In my opinion, anyway. :-) I know that Bob Bigalow plans to make that happen, and he has spent, I think, 150 million USD of his own money so far?

http://www.bigelowaerospace.com/

He has two satellites up there, testing his life support systems. He plans to build a space hotel first, then later a moon hotel. :)

Personally I think Mars is a better place for colonization, but I know there's a lot of disagreement among enthusiasts on that lol. ;-) I am a Robert Zubrin fan; he is the guy who came up with "Mars Direct", outlined in the book "The Case for Mars". :)

http://www.marssociety.org/home/about/mars-direct

case for mars link on amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Case-Mars-Plan-Settle-Planet/dp/0684835509/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1301280181&sr=8-1

--Brian

Tim said...

Brian: As for the subject of psi, the supernatural, God, etc. I was not so much convinced by his arguments for their nonexistence, as much as his argument for their non-inclusion in serious science fiction. The casual inclusion of psionics was once a common enough feature of SF ("the navigator is also a level six telepath, so let's see if he's sensing anything") but if you're going to write psi into your universe nowadays, it's probably going to be front and center. Star Wars (the originals) did this fairly well, though that's more space fantasy than science fiction. Maybe that's what we need: a hard SF Star Wars.

Milo said...

How hard can your SF be when the plot is about rescuing a princess from an evil wizard?

Thucydides said...

Anyone can make predictions, just some are more complete, better informed or more fully thought out than others. For our purposes, the important thing is to take a prediction and examine it for interesting consequences, second order effects and so on.

Even in the Rocketverse, we make mutually incompatible predictions based on what sort of premises we accept, but so long as the predictions and consequences are internally consistent then there is room for informed speculation and storytelling. All you need are:
a. Interesting characters
b. An internally consistent milieu
c. Situations where characters react to each other and their environment in interesting ways

Hard and soft do depend to a large extent on taste; Gregory Benford wrote really good novels about human interaction with what was essentially magitech, while Ursula LeGuin's novels often read like allegories (but the Left Hand of Darkness was built around one SFnal idea: a people without a fixed sexual identity). I have enjoyed reading both authors, so it is a matter of taste.

Luke said...

Tony:

I know what string theory is. It's actually a collection of theories, none of which has made any testable predictions.

String theory has made testable predictions, some of which have been confirmed and have interesting explanative powers. However, these predictions are not about what people expected - the mathematics of string theory have been able to transform certain intractable problems in solid state physics into other problems that can be solved much more easily. We are still waiting on answers about the fundamental nature of the vacuum in which the physics of the world we exist in takes place.

There are also other testable predictions of various explorations of string theory. These predictions are about the more exotic nature of things people come to expect from string theory, and they might (or might not) be seen by CERN's large hadron collider. It true, they would be very exciting - it would indicate that gravity unifies with the other fundamental forces at a much lower energy scale (which, given that all vaguely plausible SFnal FTL is based on gravity, provides a nifty backstage technobabble for explaining these things).

Also, all string theories are a subset of M theory (at least they were as of 2002, for all I know people have found new weird multi-dimensional theories of vibrating thingies which are not part of M theory, and which may or may not be unified at a still higher level yet. It has been a while since grad school when I followed these things).

Tony said...

neutrino78x:

"Tony, vacations on the moon will happen; it is a question of when! In my opinion, anyway. :-) I know that Bob Bigalow plans to make that happen, and he has spent, I think, 150 million USD of his own money so far?"

"He has two satellites up there, testing his life support systems. He plans to build a space hotel first, then later a moon hotel. :)"

Bigelow doesn't have a crew launch vehicle. When they do, it'll be bought at the same price that NASA pays for it. You might see Bigelow-operated LEO space tourism for $50M a seat in 2020-2025. The Moon? I'd be surprised if you could get a tourist to the Moon for $1B in 2100. Great for the ultra rich, but hardly in line with any prediction made by futurists in the 20th Century.

BTW, it's impolite to use exclamation points as much as you do. It's the same thing in writing as exhortative ranting is in verbal discussion.

Also, so far you don't seem to have the monopoly on astronautics and physical sciences information that you apparently think you do. Perhaps you should moderate your tone for that reason too?

Tony said...

Re: Luke

Don't you think it's a bit of an irrelevant quibble to state that string theory mathematics have helped make predictions in other fields, if the point is that string theory itself, as a theory of matter, has so far never been tested?

Anonymous said...

Milo:

The network on Pandora need not have arisen spontaneously. It appears that most of the tree species can link their roots together to exchange information, and that most if not all of the 'vertebrates' can link with other members of their species, with certain tree species, and potentially with members of other vertebrate species. The ability to communicate in this way would have definite evolutionary advantages, and could well allow species with this form of communication to thrive better than those without it, causing the latter to become extinct. Alternatively, the ability may have evolved early enough that all complex life on Pandora has it.

R.C.

Thucydides said...

One prediction that can be made from economics is that one a monopoly is broken, prices will go down.

You can already see the stirrings with companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX starting to move into markets formerly owned by government monopoly. A bit farther in the future, nations like China and India will be attempting to siphon off some of the market as well, using heavily subsidized boosters to penetrate t5he market. Increasing supply of relatively low cost launches will also boost demand, as previously marginal ventures become cost effective. A positive feedback loop will continue until a new equilibrium is reached.

There won't be the giant orbiting Hiltons as depicted in 2001 (even if the physics supports larger structures) until rocketry is replaced by something more efficient. The minimum energy needed to get to orbit gives us a "floor price" (and rockets don't scale down), but it will be lower than the current $20million/seat to the ISS.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"One prediction that can be made from economics is that one a monopoly is broken, prices will go down."

Except that it's a fiction that there is a monopoly. Boeing and Lockmart used to compete in the US, but a shrinking market forced them to consolidate their launch services in United Launch Alliance. Still, ULA will soon be competing with SpaceX. And those concerns compete in the international market with ILS, Starsem, Arianespace, and the Chinese Long March.

The launch market is so soft, in fact, that even if some company was interested in cornering it, it would have to offer the lowest possible prices just to get business.

neutrino78x said...

Tony, I don't have a college degree. I've pointed that out several times before. So, no one should have the impression that I think I have a "monopoly" in any field of human endeavor or knowledge.

Comments by others:

Yes, initially, tickets to a space hotel would be in the millions of dollars, but that will not always be the case. Rich people make the initial investments, and are the initial market, then the ticket price goes down over time. Initially, you had to be rich to own a computer. That's not the case anymore.

You have to look at these things long term. The farther out you look, the greater the probability that colonization of other planets, star systems, etc., will already have taken place. When that happens, thousands of people -- civilians, people who are not specially trained astronauts -- will be going off into space every day. Spacecraft liftoffs will be as common as aircraft takeoffs are today. There will be a Hilton in orbit, but also on the Moon, on Mars, on various moons of the Gas Giants, on various Kuiper Belt Objects, etc.

I'm sure that if you asked the people who sailed to Pacific islands in canoes if they thought there would ever be large ships made of metal that took hundreds of thousands of people across the great ocean every year (most of which fly through the air rather than going across the ocean these days), they would have discounted the possibility as well. But 1000 years later, it is routine to cross the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. One day, it will be routine to go to the moons of Jupiter, and only a little less routine to go to another star.

Men will colonize the Milky Way and other galaxies, eventually. "Never" is a really long time.

--Brian

Luke said...

Tony:

Don't you think it's a bit of an irrelevant quibble to state that string theory mathematics have helped make predictions in other fields, if the point is that string theory itself, as a theory of matter, has so far never been tested?

Not at all. String theory, as a theory, has been shown to be useful and predictive. Its applications just happen to be in unexpected places.

Tony said...

Luke:

"Not at all. String theory, as a theory, has been shown to be useful and predictive. Its applications just happen to be in unexpected places."

Is this a fair statement (from Wikipedia):

Other testability criteria

Many physicists strongly oppose the idea that string theory is not falsifiable, among them Sylvester James Gates: "So, the next time someone tells you that string theory is not testable, remind them of the AdS/CFT connection ..." AdS/CFT relates string theory to gauge theory, and allows contact with low energy experiments in quantum chromodynamics. This type of string theory, which only describes the strong interactions, is much less controversial today than string theories of everything (although two decades ago, it was the other way around).

In addition, Gates points out that the grand unification natural in string theories of everything requires that the coupling constants of the four forces meet at one point under renormalization group rescaling. This is also a falsifiable statement, but it is not restricted to string theory, but is shared by grand unified theories. The LHC will be used both for testing AdS/CFT, and to check if the electroweakstrong unification does happen as predicted.


If it is, then could we agree that string theory, as a basic theory of matter and energy, has not been verified by any test, and that planned LHC tests may or may not verify it?

IOW, there's a world of difference between mathematics and any specific physical theory that the maths might support. Conflating the two is not justified.

Tony said...

neutrino78x:

"Tony, I don't have a college degree. I've pointed that out several times before. So, no one should have the impression that I think I have a "monopoly" in any field of human endeavor or knowledge."

I wasn't aware that I was making formal credentials an issue. I didn't have a degree myself until I was 40, and my academic qualifications only bear on a relatively few topics discussed here. I just find it a bit, ummm...curious, that you presume my knowledge to be so lacking about certain things. I think you should assume that it isn't from here on out. k?

"Yes, initially, tickets to a space hotel would be in the millions of dollars, but that will not always be the case..."

They're not analogous situations. Computing technology was far from mature when it was first introduced, and seems to still not be mature. Chemical rocketry was remarkably close to maturity when it first put man in LEO. We still use designs from that era for manned flight. It's as if railroads started out in the 1840s with diesel-electric engines and pneumatic braking systems.

"You have to look at these things long term. The farther out you look, the greater the probability that colonization of other planets, star systems, etc..."

Only if there's a significant advance in launch vehicle technology. At this point we can guess that it might have something to do with very compact and light nuclear fusion, or even more fundamental manipulations of matter and energy at the GUT level, but we can't even begin to guess how either of those might actually be accomplished, and we certainly can't put a time frame on it.

"One day, it will be routine to go to the moons of Jupiter, and only a little less routine to go to another star...

...

Men will colonize the Milky Way and other galaxies, eventually. "Never" is a really long time."


It would be a great adventure, but, as much as I hope it becoems possible, it might simply turn out not to be. "Never" is just as plausible a timescale as "next year".

Luke said...

Tony:

then could we agree that string theory, as a basic theory of matter and energy, has not been verified by any test, and that planned LHC tests may or may not verify it?

That sounds about right.

Rick said...

There are some points being made that I largely agree with, but it would be more helpful to the discussion if they were made with a lighter hand ...

Other than that, carry on!

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