Posts concerning science-fiction

Androids in Alien and Prometheus

23:55 24 Jun 2012. Updated: 01:25 25 Jun 2012

(Spoilers for Alien and Prometheus, clearly.)

What is an android? The first Wiktionary definition is “a robot that is designed to look and act like a human (usually male)”. Looking like a human is the easier of the two components, particularly when not in motion, despite the potential difficulties in artificially replicating skin in a convincing manner. The real difficulty is acting like a human. Our stories are full of creatures (döppelgangers, aliens, golems[1]) that look like use but are not us, and this familiarity with the concept may mask how difficult accomplishing such a thing would be—an oversight that forms a core weakness in Prometheus.

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Technical Difficulties and Linkspam, 2012-06-17

22:56 17 Jun 2012

The death of my old MacBook Pro this evening has caused the loss (hopefully only temporary) of the blog post I was working on today (on androids in Alien and Prometheus), which I will try to recover and finish next week.

In the meantime, here are some interesting things I encountered on the internet this week.

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Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: Neuroscience

21:07 26 Feb 2012. Updated: 23:47 02 Mar 2012

A clear implication of my having settled on some kind of “bioAI” in my examination of AI in the setting is that neuroscience must be quite advanced indeed, given that a strong understanding of brains and how they work would be necessary to bio-engineer them. In the gap between bio-engineering and “pure” manufacture there are clearly many mysteries, but even so, the setting’s neuroscientific understanding must be formidable.

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S0E1, Part One

23:59 06 Nov 2011

She couldn’t hear the evacuation sirens, but her retina display told her they were sounding. The crew of Circus Catch should be rushing around, following their evac drill, and the command staff should be preparing to abandon and scuttle.

She, however, had to remain still, reining in her adrenaline, clinging to the outside of the hull.

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Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: Artificial Intelligence

23:48 16 Oct 2011

The effect of AI on a setting is similar to the effect of sentient alien beings, in that it helps to define the limits of “humanity”. By AI here I mean strong AI, the ability to create sentient machines, and particularly sentient machines of vastly greater intelligence than humans.

While it’s certainly possible to include AI created by non-human civilizations, that’s really the realm of “sentient aliens” rather than what I have in mind here, which is strong AI created by the human race. The interplay/tension between those two groups is critical a lot of space opera, e.g. Iain M. Banks’ Culture series and Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos—not to mention Battlestar Galactica and critical aspects of the background of the Dune setting.

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Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: Energy

19:02 25 Sep 2011

Given that I’ve chosen FTL travel and FTL communication as well as a scale that involves a fair amount of space, energy production and consumption are going to be important in the setting. The availability and cost of energy help to define many of the parameters of the milieu, including its economy.

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Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: Aliens

15:14 07 Aug 2011. Updated: 18:19 17 Sep 2011

FTL travel, and the “big universe” aspect of space opera, mean that if a setting includes alien life, humans are likely to encounter it. Its presence or absence does a great deal to shape the setting, both in terms of power dynamics and politics and in terms of how it feels.

Note that I’m not considering the question of whether or not it’s more “realistic” for a setting to contain aliens or not, as the question of our being alone in the universe is both too large for this post and not one I want to try to answer satisfactorily before starting to write this particular space opera piece.

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Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: Scale

19:36 22 May 2011

By “scale” here I mean: how far does space that humans have explored extend? How far is it feasible for humans to travel within the civilization? How many systems make up that civilization?

“Space opera” implies a large setting, but in real terms “large” is fairly meaningless, and allows for rather a lot of variance.

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Welcome to the Future Market II

23:18 25 Apr 2011

The year is 2011, and sophisticated AIs carefully watch for arbitrage opportunities, tracking/correlating/analyzing vast amounts of data at split-second speed to keep ahead of their competitors even in comparatively small arenas.

That, or overly simplistic scripting that seemed clever when it was written fails to take certain conditions into account, leading to the $23,698,655.93 (& $3.99 shipping) book.

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Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: FTL Communication

22:55 05 Apr 2011

I’m still thinking about my large-scale science-fiction/space opera project, and the next major consideration after FTL travel is faster-than-light communication.

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Welcome to the Future Market

21:58 18 Mar 2011

The year is 2011, and sophisticated AIs carefully watch trends and track/correlate/analyze vast amounts of data to inform sophisticated maneuvers in the global markets.

Or, well, maybe a bunch of dodgy scripts are doing clumsy sentiment analysis on various volatile and imprecise social networks and rumormongering news services, and they can’t tell the difference between Anne Hathaway and Berkshire Hathaway.

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Overthinking Star Wars

21:27 14 Dec 2010

In the spirit of the famous Clerks discussion, here’s “Think Tank: What do the Stormtroopers Think of Vader?”. Best excerpts:

Imagine you worked at the Pentagon as a personal attache to Colin Powell or McChrystal, and you hear over the PA “Alert! Alert! There is a Nazi Ninja Master loose in the Pentagon! Your orders are ‘Shoot to kill!’” You get up and walk around the corner, and there’s this 80 year old man with a Hitler moustache in a black outfit, and he and Donald Rumsfeld are circling each other ominously. Both of them have katanas drawn.

Do you shoot?



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Caprica Cancelled… And Few Notice

23:58 28 Oct 2010. Updated: 01:20 29 Oct 2010

Battlestar Galactica seemed to me to be a rather successful series. This is probably because know a lot of people who watched it, but it did survive through four seasons and has been hailed as the most successful science fiction series in years. It also generated a fair amount of discussion, and I had conversations about it with a lot of friends. But no-one I know said anything to me about Caprica, and I think this is because no-one I know was watching it. And now it’s dead.

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Considerations for a Space Opera Setting: FTL Travel

23:37 04 Oct 2010. Updated: 00:47 05 Oct 2010

I recently had a chunk of inspiration hit me, and am considering a fairly large-scale science fiction project. It’s in a far-future, large-scale, “big SF” vein, also known as “space opera” (although that genre is rather loosely defined). I don’t think it’s in the same universe as my science fiction novel, although I might change my mind on that. In any case, I do want to go over the major factors that I think define a setting of that kind. The first one of these is the presence/absence/nature of faster-than-light travel.

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Courtney Stoker, Patriarchy, and Geek Misogyny

22:26 23 Aug 2010

This is one of the better discussions on prejudice in geek culture that I’ve come across: “Courtney Stoker on Feminist Geek”. I like where Stoker is coming from—perhaps unsurprisingly, for like me she has an academic background in English literature and is also a science fiction fan. But she is far more community-oriented than I am; despite the fact that my geekery goes back decades and despite my involvement in something like Fantasy Bedtime Hour, my engagement with science fiction is primarily either private, or shared through meatspace discussion, or expressed on this blog. None of those things are involvement with large-scale communities such as those Stoker is discussing.

One of the reasons this particular interview with Stoker is important is that she sensibly addresses the influence of anti-geek prejudice on male geeks.

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Alien Prequel

14:25 27 Apr 2010

I really hope that Ridley Scott does a good job on the prequel he’s making. Answering the questions about the background of Alien could be absolutely fantastic.

The problem with answering questions like that, though, is that plenty of viewers have created their own backstories, not in the fan-fiction sense but less consciously, assembling a structure that for them makes sense around the plot presented. Any prequel (or other expansion) runs into the issue of creating a larger milieu that fits around not just the original but also some reasonable number of the viewers’ imagined extrapolations.

Here’s hoping that Scott can do better than a certain other influential 1970s science fiction director…

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“Let’s Enhance”

16:29 07 Mar 2010

A particularly inane trope:

In case the point isn’t crystal clear: you can’t do that. There are no image enhancement programs that let you know what the data missing at the point of capture is.

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Gizmodo on Space Battle Physics

08:06 20 Dec 2009

This article is an excellent overview of how near-future space combat might actually work, and also points out plenty of things that depictions of far-future space combat have gotten very wrong.

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Doomsday Book Review

23:53 13 Nov 2009. Updated: 02:03 14 Nov 2009

Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book won the Nebula award in 1992 and the Hugo and Locus awards in 1993. I would describe it as a time travel plague thriller academic farce, and of all the triple crown winners it is my least favorite. Some of its ideas were good, and some of its passages powerful, but overall I found it disjointed and less than gripping.

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Speaker for the Dead Review

05:52 26 Oct 2009

Speaker for the Dead is the second novel in Orson Scott Card’s Ender series. It won the Nebula award in 1986 and the Hugo and Locus awards in 1987. Its predecessor, Ender’s Game, is revered as a science fiction and geek cult classic that still has resonance in geek culture. I liked Ender’s Game when I first read it years ago, and when I re-read it recently (prior to Speaker for the Dead), I enjoyed it and thought it held up quite well.

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Startide Rising Review

15:20 13 Oct 2009

Startide Rising is the second novel in David Brin’s Uplift Universe series, and it won the Nebula in 1983 and the Hugo and Locus in 1984. I read its predecessor Sundiver first, and it nearly stopped me from going on to Startide Rising. I didn’t like the writing style at all, and it felt unpolished. It must be said that its ideas and setting were interesting: it’s “big universe” science fiction, with a multitude of alien races. The unique concept Brin came up with was that every alien race was raised to technological advancement (or even sentience) by some other race acting as “patron”—except for humanity, which reached a high degree of advancement, and raised dolphins and chimpanzees to higher-level sentience, without a patron.

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Rendezvous with Rama Review

12:55 12 Oct 2009

Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama won the Nebula in 1973, and the Hugo and Locus in 1974 (as well as the 1973 BSFA award and the 1974 Jupiter and John W. Campbell awards). After I read it I described it as “old school”, which still seems accurate.

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Dreamsnake Review

21:02 15 Sep 2009. Updated: 12:54 12 Oct 2009

Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake won the 1978 Nebula and the 1979 Locus and Hugo awards. I’m having trouble figuring out why. This is not to say it’s bad—it’s quite good, and I’ve definitely encountered worse award winners. But it won all three while seeming to me like a good but unremarkable novel, and my expectation is that the “triple crown” winners would be remarkable in some way.

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