Science Fiction Round 32: Paycheck

2014/07/23 Leave a comment

The film is Paycheck.  The basic premise is that the lead character, Michael Jennings, works for companies to reverse-engineer their competitors’ technology, and then have his memory wiped when he’s done.


Now that that’s out of the way, let’s do some analysis.


This is Jennings.  And yes, the train tunnel actually shows up in the movie.

This is Jennings. And yes, the train tunnel actually shows up in the movie.

The Author Is A Spoiler

The movie is based on a short story written by some guy named Phillip Dick.

Given that he’s the author behind the original print versions of Minority Report and Blade Runner, as the poster above says, among other things, you can infer that mind-bending is imminent.

I am reminded of Achron in many ways.  The last job Jennings takes is to [SPOILER] help build a machine that can see into the future.  No time travel, mind you, just see the future.

Turns out, seeing the future makes the world go bonkers in the future, more or less, so Jennings has to set things up so that, after his memory is wiped after the job, he can destroy the machine that lets people see the future.  And uses his past future knowledge to make it work.

Reverse-Engineering The Future

That’s how Jennings approaches the whole situation.  Before his memory is wiped, he uses his foreknowledge to send himself a package of useful goodies.  Once he’s back out in the world, he’s confused about why he gave up his payment… and why he sent himself a back of junk.  A few “coincidental” convenient things push him to realize that he sent himself a bag of tools that he would need to change the future.

Admittedly, this is pretty cool.  Solving the puzzles along with him and watching how small things can change the course of events is great fun.

There’s just one part that has me concerned.

A huge world-war in the wake of future-viewing tech (predicted by said tech) is what causes Jennings to send himself a package in the future to make sure he destroys what he created.

Now, this is all well and good.  Except, he and a friend go back to the machine to destroy it… after looking into the future one more time.

That “one last look” showed Jennings getting shot on a catwalk.  Jennings sees this, and plans to change the future to work around this issue.

But… in between his successful escape and his reading of the future, one of the bad guys has access to the machine.  And looks at what Jennings was looking at, to see him getting shot.

But, if Jennings had changed the future to avoid getting shot, why wasn’t the evil executive able to change the future such that Jennings did get shot?  The only way this makes sense would be if the bad guy was looking at a record of what Jennings saw, rather than the actual future… which isn’t made explicit.

Bad Guy Computer Security

I think the villains had the idiot ball in this one.

I mean, seriously.  You didn’t make backups of the plans for the future-watching device?  You aren’t most of the way done building a second one at a separate facility?  You just let Jennings back into your facility to get at the machine?  You assume he could only be going in there for the power of seeing the future, despite the fact that you know about all the looming disasters if the machine continues to exist?

… yeah.  That, and, to some degree, I think the premise of the device itself is an issue.  Seeing the future inevitably means war, plague and devastation?  I think the problem is that people seem to assume the future is immutable… or their attempts to mitigate that future, cause it to happen… in the future.  Very confusing, of course.

But, for once, could the future we see be a good one?  And our efforts to bring it about cause it to happen only once we see that it can happen?  Or, alternatively, seeing that the future can be good causes everyone to be complacent, leading to a worse future, necessitating the destruction of the device

That might be a more interesting twist.

Categories: Clement's Game Tags: ,

Your Turn, Round 2-6: A Little Rapid World-Building – Tāwhiri

During a discussion I participated in elsewhere , science-fiction world building spontaneously appeared in a discussion of another subject when a couple of people brought up the example of floating forests / floating islands.  These have shown up in fiction before, and also in real life.  I was inspired to add them to the Fermi Problems setting.  When I had a notepad and a little time, I designed a planet to put them on and named it Tāwhiri.

What Is A Floating Forest?

When I say “floating forest” here, I mean a large mass of vegetation floating in a body of liquid.  Perhaps there is too much similarity here to the micro-gravity asteroid-surrounding forests and floating aerogel-clumps that already feature in the setting, but I will include it anyway.  It is relatively straightforward to produce a planet where such islands occur to a much greater extent than they do on Earth:

Consider an ocean gyre like the Sargasso Sea.  Have masses of floating seaweed-equivalent that grow densely enough and stack thick enough to give a portion of the mass that is persistently well above the water line – avoids the photosynthesizing bits getting shadowed by or eaten by other stuff growing in the water.  Then the clumps that are strong enough to avoid being disrupted by frequent waves/wind have a survival advantage, because they keep their energy supply more reliably.  To get something that looks like a terrestrial forest, rather than a lumpy-mat-berg-plant-thing, invoke selection for traits that keep the clump in the gyre and so at a good latitude for growing.  Growth dependence based on sunlight illumination patterns can do that, and progressively give “trees” with trunks and sail-leaves that adjust themselves unintelligently to take advantage of prevailing winds and stay in the gyre.

Some clumps will still escape, and either freeze in cold water or die in too-warm water or end up in another gyre.  Clumps that get too big will fragment during storms, some will have die-offs due to competition between the various species that accumulate to form the colonies, some may capsize and persist as dead-or-dying rafts that can be colonized by new growth, and so on.

Tāwhiri – A Waterworld

But how to make a planet where these floating forest-mats are the tallest-standing lifeforms?  We need to avoid having much land-based life to compete with.  We need a waterworld.

There is a problem with making a world that is entirely covered in water: Carbon dioxide emitted from the mantle during volcanism enters the atmosphere/ocean, and acts as a powerful greenhouse gas.  Unless it goes into making limestone or something similar, biosynthesis of carbon compounds only keeps so much of the carbon out of the atmosphere and only for so long.  On the Earth, weathering processes on rocks exposed to the air create carbonate rocks, which eventually get subducted and return the CO2 to the mantle.  If there is no exposed land at all, this process doesn’t work and the climate tends to run away into a steamhouse atmosphere, which is not conducive to abundant life.  So I will do a little fine-tuning on the volatile content.  The planet we are considering will have just enough water to cover all but 1% of the surface – we have various small exposed, largely volcanic, pieces of land; and larger relatively shallow areas of ocean that we would call submerged continental fragments if they were on Earth.  This is enough to give a stable climate, albeit one with more CO2 in the atmosphere than we humans can breathe:

  • Mass: 0.95 Earth masses
  • Insolation: 340 W/m^2 average.
  • Mean surface temperature: 300 K
  • Atmospheric pressure: ~1.1 atm, 0.01 atm CO2

That surface temperature is a few degrees hotter than Earth was during the Permian, and is such that there are no ice caps at the poles.  Some additional properties follow in part from the above and in part by arbitrary decision:

  • Host Star: Kiwi – 0.85 solar masses, 0.43 solar luminosity
  • a = 0.7 AU, year = 0.635 yr (291.4 local days)
  • Mean solar day: 19h6m.
  • Two satellites, each between 30% and 50% the mass of the Moon.

The relatively-shallow regions of the ocean also serve a useful setting function: they give a pattern of gyres and overall surface currents that is more-or-less fixed relative to the seafloor, rather than drifting around the planet.  Keeping the maps straight will still be annoying, but at least a given gyre will stay over the same geology.


I am also pleased to assume people living in/on these floating forest-mats.  Their cultures, history, anatomy, and evolution are not yet specified – this is a rapid once-through, after all.

But consider this technical problem: where do you get metal if you live on this world?  There are several possible sources: those few areas of dry land that do exist, sulfide or hydroxide deposits on the sea floor, and some manner of catalytic process that separates out the metals dissolved in the sea water.  The last has a terrestrial precedent: a ~3-cm snail called the scaly-foot gastropod that hangs out near some deep-sea vents:

Scaly-Foot Gastropod.  That shell is coated in iron sulfide.  via

Scaly-Foot Gastropod. That shell is coated in iron sulfide. via

So there are ways to start developing the hardware necessary to get off-planet and start expanding through space, although it would be somewhat more difficult than doing so on Earth.  I will have the inhabitants of  Tāwhiri in the Fermi Problems setting not have done this yet, in keeping with the large gaps in the setting between the number of places where life has appeared, the number of places where cultures have appeared, and the number of places where cultures have spread across large volumes.

Fantasy Round 28: How To Train Your Dragon (2)

2014/07/07 1 comment

It’s a bird, it’s a plane… nope, it’s a dragon. It’s How To Train Your Dragon 2, and I’ve got to admit, I’m a bit disappointed in the sequel.  I really liked the first one, so a degree of disillusionment was perhaps to be expected, but… I’d really like to rewrite the plot.

I’m going to comment on a couple of points that are common to both movies, and then move on to specific annoyances in the sequel.  As ever, spoilers!

Aha, the characters are now older, young adults.  But still mostly smaller than their parents.  Weird.

Aha, the characters are now older, young adults. But still mostly smaller than their parents. Weird.

Read more…

Science Sidebar 1: Things That Go Boom In The Night

2014/07/01 1 comment

Since I’m currently working as a science reporting, I’m writing a whole bunch of actual non-fictional things about science.

The catch?  Since the newspaper is not my personal blog, there’s finite space.  So I don’t have room to include all the cool details.  Which made me kind of sad, until I realized that, hey… I could put some of those details on my personal blog.

Life is good.

And thus, this, the first installment, just in time for the Fourth of July.


Courtesy of Astronomy Picture of the Day (who got it with credits to NASA, ESA, and Zolt Levay), here’s SN 1006 — the remnant of a Type 1A supernova. Nice celestial fireworks. (Suffice it to say, don’t set off one of these in your back yard.)

The article I’m referring to is available online here.

So, what didn’t make it into the article?

Read more…

Fantasy 22.8: Skin Game

2014/06/29 1 comment

Yup, there’s one more book in the Dresden Files series: Skin Game.  It’s the 15th book in the series so far, and there are going to be a whole lot more.

There’s a bit of a shake-up to the usual Dresden Files formula, so let’s dive on in.

As ever, here there be spoilers.

There's that hat again.  Also, "skin game" does not refer to the "skins" form of golf.  At least, not so far as I can tell.

There’s that hat again. Also, “skin game” does not refer to the “skins” form of golf. At least, not so far as I can tell.

It’s A Heist Movie!

Complete with mixed-up motives and bunches of backstabbing.  Mab, Dresden’s current boss, owes a debt to the villainous Nicodemus, which she’s going to pay by having Harry Dresden, Wizard, Winter Knight, Snark Master, help Nicodemus rob a vault belonging to Hades.

Yeah, that Hades.  And Nicodemus wants to steal the Holy Grail.  Wow.

The great part is that, given Nicodemus, we know there’s going to be backstabbing.  And, given that Nicodemus screwed with Mab’s Accords, she wants Dresden to backstab just as soon as he’s fulfilled his obligations.

The characters pulled in for the heist — Nicodemus’s daughter, the shapeshifting Goodman Grey, a warlock specializing in fire magic, a guy who can summon minions at will, a Bigfoot gone bad, a normal human thief — are a delightful mix, and we get all the great scenes where they pull the group together.  It’s great fun.

Magic A Isn’t Magic A?

There’s a slightly puzzling inconsistency that appears in this novel.  Way back in Changes, Harry Dresden becomes the Winter Knight.  This comes along with the Winter Mantle, which basically gives him super strength and increased endurance, in addition to fixing that pesky spinal cord injury.  When he says “screw Winter Law” in the next book, all that gets revoked, until he takes it back.

In this book, there’s a large chunk of the plot where Butters and Dresden consider the possibility that much of the Winter Mantle’s mojo is actually just an off-switch on Dresden’s normal human limitations, allowing him access to bone-breaking strength and reducing his ability to feel exhaustion and pain.

Um.  I don’t think you can “magic feather” away a spinal cord injury like that.

Sure, perhaps this was an issue all along, and Harry has both superhuman strength and superhuman self-injury risk… but, I don’t really think it was phrased that consistently.

And if that’s the case, that the Knights tend to wear themselves down by ignoring their bodily needs, what am I to make of Ronald Reuel, the senior Summer Knight from many books ago who managed to last long enough to get gray hairs?

Who Was That Masked Man?

Goodman Grey, who are you?

Grey is a consummate shape-shifter, and also plays the role of mole on behalf of Dresden within the heist-plotting crew, apparently because he owed Dresden’s highly-mysterious mother a favor.

He is also, apparently, at least part skinwalker.

Holy crap.  It sounds like his father raped his mother (or something), since skinwalkers can (probably literally) scare the living daylights out of you.  We hadn’t previously seen anything about skinwalkers reproducing; we only know that they’re super evil critters that Merlin thought needed to be confined for eternity.  So… why would a skinwalker have a kid?

Grey doesn’t show the same “I scare the crap out of you” stuff to Dresden, except for a glimpse of his real eyes at the end to show what he is.  But, half-skinwalker?  Really?  I want to know more.  Arg.

Dude, Um, Not Funny

There’s a mixup where, rather than telling her father that she is now the Winter Lady, Molly lets her father think that she and Harry Dresden are an item.

I’m horrified.

The age gap is bad enough, but, as Dresden says, he’s known her since she was a child.  He admits she’s attractive, but from the beginning, despite Molly’s interest, he has put a lot of effort into treating her as a human being and avoiding abusing his position of authority over her.

And this breaks that, just a little bit.  I’m not sure which is worse — Molly letting her dad think that, or Dresden deciding to let Molly tell him the truth.  It’s just awful, and I’m surprised that Dresden isn’t more upset about it.  Perhaps he sympathizes, due to not having told the truth to his friends on many prior occasions… but, still.

Nicodemus is Scary

Well, now some things make a bit more sense.

Nicodemus knows so much because he has powers similar to those of the Archive.  He can hear anything said within earshot of the shadow of a living thing, unless precautions are taken to prevent it, and by fairly powerful people.

No wonder he wanted to kidnap the Archive so badly in one of the earlier books — between the two of them, they’d know basically everything.  World manipulation, to the max.

And, for once, we now have a good explanation for Dresden not telling his friends everything.  Since Dresden can’t counteract that power himself, anything he says around people’s shadows could get back to Nicodemus’s ears.

Items of Power

I swear, someone needed to say, “You have chosen… poorly” to Nicodemus by the end.

He ended up with the Grail, but Dresden made off with four other, um, mystical artifacts: a crown of thorns (um), a piece of wood with a faded label (um, um), a faded bit of cloth (probably a real Shroud of Turin), and a knife.

The knife doesn’t fit the theme.  Where’d that come from?  And Dresden hints that maybe that item was the one Nicodemus could have done the most damage with…

Family Matters

Also, we now know where spirits of intellect come from: they spring from the minds of mortals who have in some manner, been associated in an act of love with a spirit, and are born with all the knowledge of both parents.  Dresden was rather closely associated with the shadow of the demon Lasciel for a while, who sacrificed herself to save his life, so…

Dresden now has two daughters.  Yay!  I look forward to learning more about the brand new one.

But, now I’ve got to know: where did Bob, Dresden’s old spirit of intellect, come from?  Did he kill off his mortal parent during birth?  Does the manner of his coming into being have something to do with why Mab doesn’t like him?  Hm.

And, given the resemblance to the old myth, does Athena exist?  And is she some sort of ascended spirit of intellect?

Butters is Batman

Since this shows up, and is awesome, I’ll just mention it briefly.  Butters makes the final set of his transition in this story, from the frightened coroner to hero in his own right.  Despite his complete lack of natural talent, he does a pretty good job as an artificer, and takes advantage of Bob to power his magics as needed, from super-speed skateboard to cloak-parachute.  At the end, he picks up a Sword, Fidelaccius.  The blade was broken off earlier in the story, but when he picks up the hilt, it does a real, honest-to-goodness white Jedi lightsaber thing.  Duuuuuuude.

It’s also fairly clear that the Christian God in this setting is pretty ecumenical.  The Knights of the Cross that we’ve seen so far include a Catholic, a Baptist, an agnostic, and now a Jew.



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