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SciFi Round Five: Lois McMaster Bujold and what technologies do to society

As you can see from SciFi Rounds Two and Four, and my comment on Fantasy League Round 2, one thing that particularly annoys me about science fiction and fantasy stories is when a technology is introduced but then not consistently used, or the implications it would have for society if it were widely used are not considered.  So this time I’d like to discuss a series where the effects of technology on society are carefully explored: The Vorkosigan Saga by Lois McMaster Bujold.

This is an omnibus volume of several of the earlier books in the series, when Miles is working undercover field operations for the Barrayar government

This is an omnibus volume of several of the earlier books in the series, when Miles is working undercover field operations for the Barrayar government as Miles Naismith, mercenary admiral. Miles is the short guy in front, looking older than his years. Behind him is Captain Bel Thorne, Betan hermaphrodite of varying gender presentation. The big lady in back is Sergeant Taura, genetically-engineered teenage super-soldier. She’s always rather hungry.

The Setting

This is not hard sci-fi in Clement’s sense, or even Benford’s.  In the Vorkosiganverse, inhabited star systems are connected to each other by a network of wormholes that can be traversed by ships with special engines.  The jump-points form a Portal Network (‘The Nexus’), that is only loosely correlated to normal space.   There is also artificial gravity, which allows spacecraft, including missiles, to accelerate far faster than anything made of normal materials has a right to.  It also allows disturbingly effective weapons and defenses against them.

But we can excuse these impossible technologies, which Bujold included to give what first appears to be a conventional space-opera setting, because of how she shapes the society around them.

The Characters

The main characters of the series are the Vorkosigan Clan, most particularly Count Aral Vorkosigan, his wife Cordelia Naismith (originally of Beta Colony), and their sons Miles and Mark (twin brothers, Miles being six years older – cloning was involved).  Aral Vorkosigan is a Count of Barrayar, and sometime Regent for Emperor Gregor and Prime Minister of the Barrayarian government.  Miles has a first career as an under-cover operative for Barrayarian Imperial Security, under the transparent alias ‘Miles Naismith’.  Things catch up for him eventually, and he gets re-employed as an Imperial Auditor – which is much more badass than it sounds.

You may wonder why an Earth-descended colony is governed by a Russian/British-flavored monarchy.  The story there is a good illustration of Bujold’s approach.  The original wormhole route from Earth to Barrayar collapsed shortly after the planet was colonized, and while the air could be breathed and the water drunk, terraforming was in its infancy.  Mutagenic  compounds infected many children, leading to a culture of infanticide at any sign of physical abnormality.  Earth-derived nutrients were scarce, most high technology was lost because the planet was not yet able to build most of it, and manure for fertilizer became an essential currency, consolidated by the first Emperor Vorbarra.  The counts started as his accountants and military enforcers, and were kept in check by the greatly feared Imperial Auditors – who do whatever the Emperor needs done.
Eventually, another route to Barrayar was found, and the planet was reconnected to the wormhole network.  Over the next several generations, it goes through huge social changes as galactic technologies are (re-)introduced.  Of course, first they have to reassert their independence from the Cetagandans who have invaded them.

The Technologies

The Uterine Replicator

One of the most important technologies for the societies in the Vorkosigan-verse is the uterine replicator.  That is exactly what it sounds like, and enables a lot of bizarre-by-our-standards societies.  Athos is populated entirely by men, which works as long as they can occasionally import new supplies of frozen ova.  Other places take the technology to the extreme – uterine replicators aren’t limited to having the placenta be compatible with a human mother.

This led to the quaddies: people who were genetically engineered to live and work in zero gravity, with four hands rather than two hands and two feet.  They became economic refugees when artificial gravity was developed on Beta Colony, and staged a daring escape to an unsettled star system.  Two hundred years later, they had spread through an entire asteroid belt as ‘The Union of Free Habitats’.

On Beta Colony, the surface could not be terraformed, and only a replacement-level of children could be born.  So everybody was on strict birth control, but the high-tech society meant that most children were born by replicator because it was easier on their mothers.  For a while there was a radical egalitarian movement and a bunch of people were engineered to be hermaphrodites.  The one we encounter most is Captain Bel Thorne, who found Beta to be a nice place to live, but boring, and became a mercenary fleet captain.

On Cetaganda, all children are genetically engineered by the government, and genetic engineering has gone to the point that some Cetas are arguably no longer human.

And on Barrayar, one of the first uterine replicators to be imported from the galactics is used to save the life of Miles Vorkosigan.  Cordelia was pregnant when an assassination attempt was made on her and Aral.  The treatment to save her nearly killed the fetus, and the treatments to save it could not be done without killing her in turn, so there was an emergency Caesarian and a transfer to the uterine replicator.  But of course, a uterine replicator can be stolen, and the batteries will only last so long…  And even when she recovers the replicator and Miles is born, he is still small and with very weak bones and a twisted spine, although his genes are fine.  Remember the Barrayarian prejudice against anyone who looks like they might be a mutant?  Good thing Aral and Cordelia have a lot of influence, and they teach him how to be an extreme Determinator.

Cloning

Miles Vorkosigan has a problem.  He has endured a childhood of bone breaks and medically-necessary torture – most of his skeleton has been replaced by synthetics.  He failed the entrance exams to the Imperial Service academy when he broke both of his legs on the obstacle course, but got in later by convincing the young Emperor Gregor that he was better confined there than left to his own devices.  He has been assigned as a courier for Imperial Security, which is a cover for his true assignment, commanding the Dendarii Mercenaries as Admiral Miles Naismith.  He breaks out ten thousand prisoners from a Cetagandan prison camp, saves Gregor when he gets kidnapped, and rescues a genetically-engineered superweapon from a corporate house on Jackson’s Whole – said superweapon is Taura, a teenager with some interesting biology (she has superhuman strength and an appetite to match).

But how do you keep your secret identity secret when you have an increasingly-visible public persona, and your father is famous as an admiral, a count, and the former Regent of three planets?  Simple, you claim that Miles Naismith is a dangerous renegade, cloned as part of a long-term plot to assassinate your father.  But then Miles encounters an actual clone of himself, created just for that purpose.  The clone has been forced to endure surgery after surgery, as Miles accumulated injuries himself, and is very very angry with his handlers about this.  Under the Betan ethics that Miles learned from his mother, the clone is his brother, and so Miles helps him escape his handlers, and gives him his name – Mark.  Mark helps by letting Miles maintain his cover, for a while longer.

But cloning technology has other applications.  There is the Durona group, fifty-something clones of the same doctor, all equally adept at surgery.  And there is the black market in cloning on Jackson’s Whole – for a price, you can be cloned and fifteen or so years later the clone is sacrificed to give you a compatible young body.  Rather evil, isn’t it?  Mark was cloned by those people, and tries to break out a large number of clones before they can be killed.  But that operation leaves Miles shot in the chest with a needle grenade.  Emergency cryonic freezing means he can be brought back, thanks to a half-dozen Duronas – but this time, his alias is forever blown.

Cryonics

Cryonic freezing is used in emergency situations to save soldiers on the battlefield – as long as the medic can get their head cold enough fast enough to prevent brain damage.  Miles regains all of his memory, but has to deal with a lingering seizure disorder.  Other emergency freezes aren’t so lucky.  The Dendarii Mercenary health plan includes provision for long-term care in the event of permanent disability from freeze and revival.

In non-emergency situations, freezing can be done more carefully.  This leads to the economy of an entire world, Kiburu-dani, being centered around cryogenic freezing.  At first it was just people with illnesses who were frozen, but then the cryocorps started doing shifts of their upper management, spending most of their time on ice while giving their voting rights and legal proxies to the corporation.  This reached the limiting case when so many resources were being diverted to the cryobanks that the rest of the economy suffered – most importantly the terraforming efforts that would allow a larger economy.  And anyone who didn’t have good representation while they were cold can awaken with very little money and skills that are fifty years out of date – making it hard to get a job.

The cryocorps get into a crisis inspired by the real-life subprime mortgage crisis, and try to buy their way out by defrauding some Barrayaran investors.  Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan shows up and turns their entire world upside down.

The Limits of Bujold’s Sociology

As good as Bujold is at incorporating a lot of different technologies into her societies (I haven’t touched on the effects sex-selection has on Barrayar society in Miles’ generation, or how memory-enhancing computer implants can malfunction, or what happens when genetic engineering is applied to make Barrayaran plants into useful chemicals), there are some limits.

The jump-ships require special engines, which makes sense given that they’re breaking the rules of normal physics.  But they also require a special control system, which is integrated by complex microcircuits into the brains of the jump-ship pilots.  Why this interface is necessary, and why a robotic jump-ship or even some creepy cultured-human-nerves-in-a-jar can’t do the same task, is never adequately explained.

The Cetagandans have a centrally-controlled gene bank, used to assemble the gene sequences of the next generation.  But for some reason there is only one copy of this bank, and it can be accessed using only one single physical key.  Bujold confesses the absurdity of this system – that story needed a MacGuffin in the form of a secret decoder ring.

And there is also a time-bomb in the setting.

In Ethan of Athos, Ethan is assigned the high-risk job of going from Athos to Kline Station – the only connection from Athos to the rest of The Nexus – to get more ova to ensure that there will be more generations of men on Athos.  The assignment is supposedly high-risk because he will encounter women, but Ellie Quinn of the Dendarii Mercenaries is the least of Ethan’s problems.  He ends up helping Terrance Cee, an escapee from a Cetagandian genetic experiment to produce human telepathy.  The telepathy is reasonably limited.  Cee has a biological radio receiver in his brain, which can be triggered by his consuming a particular drug.  It took many years for him to learn how to use the talent, he can’t read at any large distance or through metal, and crowds can be confusing.  The Cetas planned to use him as a spy and assassin.  He and the other subjects read this plan, objected, and escaped.

Cee traded genetic samples from himself with House Bharaputra of Jackson’s Whole for assistance.  They found this payment interesting enough to want more exclusive access to Cee’s genome, and both their enforcers and Ceta forces trace him to Kline Station.  Cee begs asylum from Ethan (who had been made Athos’ ambassador for convenience) and with Quinn’s assistance, the two men make it back to Athos.  Quinn’s assistance came at the price of samples from Cee, to be given to Admiral Naismith for ‘their employer’.  End result: Cetaganda, Athos, Barrayar, and an unknown number of people on Jackson’s Whole now have both the knowledge that human telepathy is possible and the samples from which to produce people who will grow up to be telepaths.

The chronologically latest book in the series, Cryoburn (set on Kiburu-dani), is a few years before the point in the setting where these new telepaths would be old enough to know how to use their talents.  I wonder how Bujold will have the various societies in the Vorkosigan-verse react to that.

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Fantasy League Round 3: Dog Wizard

2012/09/29 Leave a comment

No, this is not a canine version of Harry Potter.  It’s time for the last book in the Windrose series by Barbara Hambly, following The Silent Tower and The Silicon Mage.

As ever, spoilers abound below.

***

There are no words for how wrong this cover is. Suffice it to say, the wizard doesn’t look like that, and the monster doesn’t look like that, and that’s not what the fight looked like anyway.

This time around, Antryg gets summoned back for Ferryth by the Council of Wizards.  Despite his reticence, he eventually goes along with it since Joanna’s been abducted.  The wizards want him, with his knowledge of the Void, to help solve an ongoing catastrophe involving way, way too many Gates opening uncontrollably to other worlds.  Of course, they all deny knowing where Joanna is…

1.  Obligatory Power Down — Antryg, as declared by the villain of the last two books, is the most powerful wizard in the world.  So, obviously, we have to do something about that.  To the point of introducing the Master Spells possessed by the Archmage, just so Antryg can be put under a geas that prevents him from using his magic to solve the problem immediately.  This seems a bit dumb on the part of the wizards, since he’s much less effective at finding the source of the problem, but he does pretty well for himself anyway.  Partly because of the Master Spells, and because of the repetition of “not using my superpowers” from the first two books, this feels forced.

2.  Why the Exploit is Tricky — Leaving entirely aside the problem of politics and diplomacy, the exploit Michael mentioned before has a technical problem that shows up now. In particular, the wizards have started working on it, experimenting with making Gates to other world.  But they’re doing it where a bunch of ley lines converge.  This would imply a certain amount of stupidity on the part of the wizards, especially since they keep scrying to carefully make sure that no unintended Gates or abominations or whatever show up.  … and then somebody props a Gate open.  And keeps it hidden.  For a couple of months.  Apparently, the consequences of this are an increasing number of Gates popping up at random everywhere along the ley lines, letting in everything from waters to monsters to airborne toxins to local alterations of the laws of magic and physics… and the rate is accelerating.  Oops.  Of course, none of this is quantified, so it’s hard to tell if this is consistent with the minutes-duration Gates we’ve seen before.

3.  Why Are We Not Dead? — So, Gates are opening up to lots of worlds.  And doing things.  Why are there no gates that open up to worlds where, say, the strong force is so much weaker that everything disintegrates?  Or an airless world, sucking away the atmosphere?  Or otherwise rapidly dooming anybody dumb enough to get close?  Also, Joanna had to do CPR on Antryg after that last monster.  And he was getting up and walking around after that?

4.  You Fail Biology Forever — NineTenTwo/the Dead God (the poor alien is referred to by both names; his full name gets translated as a messy alphanumerical designation) shows back up again, helpfully bringing along a bunch of his technology along with him.  Including breathing apparatus.  He’s got a fascinating description, actually — start with a bigger-than-human sized dragon.  Make it walk on two legs, and remove the wings.  Now mummify it.  Give it a strange glowy thing above the eyes, which is also apparently part of what it uses to speak, and remove the mouth.  Put hardened claws on the end of all four arms; put one mouth inside each of the upper two arms, and small long/tentacles for manipulating objects.  And… yeah.  This is pretty absurd.  At least it’s not actually flying.  And the psychokinesis from the previous book seems to have disappeared… maybe that only works when it’s a disembodied spirit… but now I’m just making excuses.

5.  Genre Blindness — Witchfinder Silvorglim, I’m looking at you.  Sure, you’re obsessed with the idea that all wizards except those “saved” by the Church are the incarnation of evil… but trying to wipe them out when they have just as much to lose from all the nastiness that’s been happening just doesn’t quite make sense.  And Seldes Katne… wow.  I’m sorry, Seldes, why did you think using some dangerous ancient magical devices to hold a Gate open was a good idea?  You wanted to maintain the reality field where your magic went from “low power” to having having the power to back all of your knowledge?  Fine.  If you had that power, and enough to open a Gate to abduct Joanna to motivate Antryg to help you (though the other wizards got to him first), why didn’t you just open a Gate to go through to that world in the first place?  Particularly since that’s what you let Antryg do for you at the end, even after you were responsible for all the badness?

6.  Genre Savvy — I’ll leave the series on a high note, since at least the protagonists tend to be delightfully pragmatic.  Near the end of the story, Antryg is considering leaving Joanna, since he keeps drawing down all sorts of crazy on her.  Her response?  “Whether or not you come back to LA, you know that if the Council comes looking for you, they’re going to start with me anyway.  This way, instead of being apart and miserable, we can both get laid while we’re waiting for the next disaster.”

SciFi Round Four: Dreaming About Inception

In case any of you haven’t seen it yet:  Inception is Christopher Nolan’s brilliantly-filmed scifi heist film.  Dominic Cobb leads a team of thieves who break into the mind of Maurice Fischer to disrupt his business strategy, looking very cool while navigating a mind-twisting plot through carefully constructed dreamspaces.

The main cast of Inception, standing on the street of a folded dream-city.

While Inception is an incredibly well-made film  (the soundtrack and wire fu are particularly impressive), there are a lot of problems with the plot and world-building – to the point that we were having trouble deciding if we should call it scifi or fantasy.  One way to explain away all of the following is to say that the whole movie is Cobb having a lucid dream.  This is left deliberately ambiguous.  But if we assume that the uppermost level of the nested levels of perception in the movie is intended to be real and to correspond nearly to our world, there are serious problems with the technology, the plot, and the society.

Shared Dreaming

The fundamental technology of the film is dream sharing.  Anything between one and twelve people can be plugged into a device providing fast-acting timed sedation and blends of specialty compounds that allow all of them to experience the same dream.  One, the ‘dreamer’ is lucid-dreaming to the extent that they can build anything, including things that can’t exist in Euclidean space: Arthur likes to make Penrose stairs; Ariadne folds up Paris into origami; Cobb has a dream elevator that takes him from one set of memories to another.   The others, the ‘subjects’, populate the dreamscape with ‘projections’ – sub-personas representing sections of their minds; and with their personal secrets stashed in apparently secure parts of the map.

The first problem here is the interface: everybody is simply plugged into the machine by what looks like an IV drip into their wrist.  There is no way for that to connect to somebody’s brain: the drips don’t even connect to a peripheral nerve, to say nothing of the comprehensive read of the central nervous system and high-bandwidth connection that would be necessary to figure out what somebody was seeing in their dreams and convey that information elsewhere.  And then there is the problem of feeding back the information into somebody’s brain.  While rapidly changing strong magnetic fields can induce effects on the brain, and so can dosing somebody with neurotransmitters, neither technique is specific enough.  Making somebody experience something in their dreams that’s the same as what somebody next to them is experiencing without waking them up would mean tricking their entire brain on almost a synapse-by-synapse level – and in a way that would be very different for each subject.  It’s not something that three guys can do with a briefcase of gear in a Green Car compartment on the Shinkansen.

The next problem is time compression and nesting.  Depending on the particular version of the chemicals Cobb and company are using, subjective time within a dream runs between twelve and twenty times faster than the reality outside it.  Then when they set up a dream-within-a-dream, subjective time becomes faster still – by the same factor.  That is impossible.  There is no time compression in real dreams, but some level of compression might make sense for a lucid dream: the dreamer can just skip over the boring bits.  But unless you’re spending all of your dream-time commuting across town, a factor of ten or twenty compression is implausibly high.  And the still-faster nested time doesn’t work: at some point, bandwidth limits come into play.  Neurotransmitters only diffuse across synapses so quickly.  There is no way to run up the clock speed of a human brain without frying things.

So the technology of Inception is impossible.  But if we take it as a given, what problems remain?

Plot Holes

The first problem I have with the plot is a bit subjective: is Cobb a heroic figure?  All heist films rely on the thief-protagonist being a sympathetic figure and on their victim being much less so.  Cobb is wrongfully accused of the murder of his wife, which is a good start, but he is at least guilty of assault,  depending on how we count his hacking into her mind to free her from the endless dream of Limbo.  And his means of getting back is to assault people and rip information from their brains, leaving them with vaguely-remembered dreams of being shot or ripped to pieces; and for Fischer with an entirely re-defined sense of self.  Perhaps the ambiguity of Cobb’s morality is part of the point.

Other plot holes are less ambiguous: Saito, one of Fischer’s largest business rivals, funds the job.  His presence on the flight when the job takes place can be explained to Fischer by “He bought the airline, and offers you his condolences on the death of your father.  No charge for this flight.”  But in the first level of the dreaming, when Fischer is convinced that he is being held at gunpoint in a Los Angeles cab, why doesn’t he realize that it is Saito holding the gun, and start asking the relevant questions?

And why don’t the subjects of a dream all remember it?  Saito obviously remembered the dream that Cobb and Arthur forced him to have – as he said, “your deception was obvious”.  Why doesn’t Fischer wake up on the airplane, remember the dream of being kidnapped and having to defend himself against extraction, check his wrist for a needle mark, and recognize the people around him as his attackers?  If that seems a bit much for a man who has just watched his father die, remember: Fischer has had the same training as Saito for preventing people from invading his mind.

As a final plot hole, consider one of the film’s most iconic special effects: changes in gravity.  Suddenly dropping someone wakes them up, either back to the world or up one level in the dream.  The dreamer’s head tilting causes the gravity to shift.  This is most obvious with Arthur: he is dreaming the second-level dream while being driven through a car chase on the first-level.  The van rolling side over side over one second becomes the hotel spinning slowly around.  It flying off of a bridge makes the hotel be in zero gravity.

But these effects are inconsistently applied: the other sleepers in the van may not wake up when it falls off the bridge, since they’re another level down, but why doesn’t Arthur wake up?  He just got dropped the length of the hotel hallway.  And since he is the dreamer for that level, wouldn’t the dream then collapse?  More serious: Arthur is out in the hallway, fighting Fischer’s defenses with impressive wire fu as the gravity spins around.  One of the goons dies from falling down the hall.  But what would be happening in the room where everybody else is dreaming?  We see them peacefully floating in space, motionless.  But why weren’t they bouncing off of the walls, ending up in a tangle with half of them dream-dead from the trauma of repeated dead-weight impacts into hard surfaces?

And even if that wouldn’t have dropped them all into Limbo, why aren’t the gravity shifts on Eames’ head in the hotel in the second-level dream reflected in the mountains in the third-level dream turning end over end and collapsing?  Perhaps we can excuse that by saying that the gravity shifts are slow enough in subjective time for Eames to not notice them, but that doesn’t apply to the whiplash from his hitting the walls of the hotel room.  Nolan has certainly taken poetic license with his premise.

The Society

But the biggest problem with Inception is the similarity between the society in the movie and our own.  Simply put: a world where dream-sharing was available would not look anything like what we’re familiar with.  In the movie, dream-sharing is described as having been developed for infantry combat training.  This makes a certain amount of sense: conditioning for hand-to-hand may take only a few months, but it takes much longer to develop the reflexes to deal with all possible attacks in an effective way and you obviously can’t do unrestricted sparring in training, or there would be a serious shortage of fighters.  Double-level dreaming then becomes the equivalent of the uploading technology of The Matrix.  Spend ten hours asleep and accumulate thousands of hours of sparring practice – “I know kung fu”.  A week of double-level dreams equals five years of fighting for three hours per day.

But if dream-sharing can be used for sparring practice, it will be used for other things.  Have fighter pilots sleep for a night with a dreamer who keeps the physics real and they get the equivalent of a thousand flight hours and you save the cost and time of simulators.  Then the commercial pilots will want in.  And if pilots can do it, why not surgeons and lawyers and every person who wants a driver’s license?  Why not every high school and undergraduate student?

There are side effects to excessive dream sharing, so use would need to be limited, but even one night of double-level dreaming is the equivalent of six months of lived experience and one night of triple-level is 10 years.  And dreaming is cheap.  If a chemist working in a low-rent shop in Mombasa can mix up enough of the compounds to support a dozen people a day (granted, that was for single-level dreaming), the cost is down to perhaps ~300 USD per person per dream – and that’s assuming that the people doing the dreaming were paying about 100x the median Kenyan daily wage.  The lower-limit cost of dreaming is likely far lower, but we should allow a large margin for the salaries of the architects who design the dream.

This makes dreaming a low-operating-cost and extremely profitable industry.  Which would you chose?  A five-thousand-dollar night of dreaming or four years worth of college at ten thousand dollars per year?

Very rapidly, everyone in the world could have the equivalent of a college education by whatever is the youngest age for safe shared dreaming; and accumulate a decade of extra experience every month or year thereafter.  The limit will be having sufficient teachers to dream the classes – but they can spend twenty subjective years training and still be ready by Tuesday.  What would such a culture look like, besides having whole industries based around people getting together and dozing off, and a new social problem in the form of dream addiction?  I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be anything like the world we live in or the world Cobb and company run around in.

As part of an effective education, everyone in that world would have their subconscious trained with mental firewalls, to prevent extraction or inception.  I suspect there would be some changes in public etiquette as well: falling asleep in public would leave you even more potentially vulnerable than it does in real life.  Perhaps people learn to wear armored wristbands?  For the upper-end of security, trusted bodyguards would keep watch while their bosses were asleep.  Cobb would have known something was up when Saito by himself on the train; and Fischer would not have flown alone.  Either way, the plot of the movie wouldn’t work.

What sort of story could Nolan have told, set in a world where dreaming is mainstream?

Fantasy League Round 2: The Silicon Mage

2012/09/22 6 comments

And now it’s time for book 2, particularly since The Silent Tower ended on a cliffhanger.  Though the spoilers are rather less epic than for the first book… watch out.

This scene does not appear in the book. Okay, fine, there’s a scene where Antryg does throw around some elemental-powered lightning. But they’re not on a ledge, they’re fleeing from a bunch of soldiers through the yard around a mansion. And Caris is with them. And Antryg gets the spark for the lightning from Joanna’s flashlight batteries. And… but you get the idea.

This book is pretty much the continuation of the last one.  Our heroine, Joanna, does a bunch of hacking of the Suraklin’s stuff (he who body-snatched her jerk of a boyfriend).  She gets a bunch of supplies, and follows him back through the Void to Ferryth to rescue Antryg and save both worlds from his evil plan to download himself into a computer built by Gary pre-body-snatching, powered by draining all the magic and hope out of both our world and theirs.  (Epic spoiler:  They succeed in saving the day.)

And now, the good, the bad, and the ugly:

1.  Crazy Prepared — Joanna tries to do this before she heads back to Ferryth.  Renaissance-type dress to pass for normal?  Check.  Gold and small gems purchased with a small slice of the bad guy’s supplies, to trade for local currency?  Knife?  Check.  .38 colt?  Check.  Massive printout of bad guy code that she hasn’t had time to finish studying yet?  Check.  (This was the 80s.  Nowadays, I assume she’d take a laptop and spare batteries.)  Flashlight?  Floppy with a worm to destroy the bad guy’s computer of evil?  Saw, and spare carbide blades, for breaking Antryg out?  Check, check, check.  She later berates herself for forgetting to pack a better coat.  I approve.

2.  The Idiot Ball — Thankfully, the characters don’t play with this too much.  Joanna’s baseline plan is “Hack computer; have the worm eat it.”  Antry has “use the anti-magic device that was previously used to chain me up” as his plan, as backup to Joanna’s… which gets used when bad-guy Suraklin uses a little lightning to wipe the floppy.  And, in addition to fighting the heroes with his massive magic skills, he imported a machine gun.  His computer?  Has a backup power supply, so if something goes wrong, he has time to zap people and then fix the problem.  During the “gray periods,” when all hope (and much sanity, and the ability to do magic) is drained from everybody, people do carry the idiot ball sometimes… often, actually, but at least there’s an external excuse.

3.  Now Introducing World #3 — Remember those holes in the Void due to due much interworld travel?  One of them (finally) accidentally dumps an intelligent alien into Ferryth.  Which is awesome.  He’s a technician working on interdimensional travel who got curious.  Unfortunately, he can’t breath the air.  Fortunately, his body doesn’t decay and he can use his psychic power as a disembodied spirit.  Unfortunately, he ends up a messed-up and confused poltergeist, munching on humans for their psychic energy, which makes him sick, and possessing their bodies, which also screws him up big time.  He tries to reconstruct a body like his own using the corpses of humans worshiping him as the Dead God, which results in a monstrosity with four arms and a couple of ribs for incisors and … okay, TMI.  This is generally well done, including the vagaries of the translation spell (for instance, “quantum” makes sense to Joanna, but not to Antryg).  The main issue I have with this part?  To try to talk him down, Joanna tries to remind him of his roots — by tapping out familiar number.  Like pi, and Planck’s constant.  Which is great… except she taps in base ten.  Apparently, the alien guys use base ten, too.  Which is strangely lucky.  For that reason, sequences of integers like primes or the Fibonacci sequence would be a better choice in such a situation.

4.  Power Problems — The issue here is Caris.  Because Antryg is being hunted down, if he uses his magic for anything big in most of the story, our heroes will be toast.  So, while they’re in the guise of being a doctor, student, and assistant, Caris (as the student) has to get enough information from Antryg to save a woman’s life.  I am… impressed that Caris is able to pull this off.  Granted, we’ve known Caris was mageborn from the beginning, and Antryg’s been giving him some proper teaching, but the closing-off-blood-vessels thing is more than we (or he, apparently) knew he could pull off.  There’s a reference made later, to his grandfather stating he would have made a better healer than a warrior, but it still seems a bit out of the blue.

5.  More Power — At least in Antryg’s case, the first book made a point of stating that he was the most powerful mage in the world.  (As stated by Suraklin, no less.)  In some sense, the big fight scene at the end is nicely done.  Rather than having the big, flashy scene, a lot of it is purely countermagic — Antryg holding off the ever-increasing number of computer-powered spells until he and Joanna can get to it.  After all, in real life, it’d only take one fireball to kill you.  The problem here?  Suraklin’s already uploaded.  Supposedly, this means all magic is being drained from everywhere.  Or, in other words… no mage can do magic except for Suraklin-the-computer.  Which means Antryg should be helpless.  There’s some comment in the first book where Antryg implies he’s at least resistant to the effect, due to having worked with Suraklin and being kind of nuts so that he can still do magic, since he still has hope.  That doesn’t seem an adequate explanation.

6.  Entropy Always Wins — How they end up beating Suraklin.  They bust up his magic-draining power supply, so that he’s stuck running on battery power.  They wait, resisting his magic and various attempts to kill them off, until his power runs out and he gets completely cut off from every other world, lost in the Void.  (Presumably, had they died, he’d have worked on fixing himself.  He then blows himself up, since being lost forever cut off from everything isn’t what he signed up for.)  This ends up working with a rather nice theme about the Dead God — who died because that way he could be one with nothing, and win when the universe dies.  Well, not nice, but you get the idea.  But, regardless — it was a nice touch.

SciFi Round Three: Larry Niven and the Limits of Retconning

We’ve talked about the contradictions, impossibilities, and failures in worldbuilding of several different stories.  But what happens when a novel has been printed, a movie filmed, or a game sold to thousands of players, and then a contradiction comes up?  Not even Clement foresaw everything.
There are several options here.  One is to ignore the contradictions entirely, like the military tactics in Star Trek (trying to fix that is why I’m not supposed to write Star Trek stories anymore – MB).  If you can re-write the entire medium, many contradictions can be resolved in the new version, such as in the 2003 Battlestar Galactica miniseries (although the later seasons of the show introduced more problems).  The third option is to introduce corrections.  If you have a game, introduce a rule patch.  If you have a story, add material to a sequel that was either not referred to or contradicts parts of the original.  This is a retcon.

Retconning is limited, though.  The premise of a story can only be twisted so far before it breaks.  This time, we’ll consider this problem in the Known Space series of Larry Niven.

Ringworld And Its Problem

In the extended setting that is Larry Niven’s Known Space universe, the Ringworld is the single largest structure.  It is exactly what it sounds like – a ring around a star, a million miles wide, six hundred million miles long, and up to a thousand miles thick (we can pardon Niven for not using metric).  Niven specified the implausibly strong materials that would be required for the ring to hold together while spinning fast enough to give the equivalent of about 1 g on the inside of the ring, and to hold together a smaller interior ring of separated squares to give days and nights inside the main ring as they rotated.  Whoever built it loaded up the inside surface with a carefully-landscaped Earth-like biosphere.

The Ringworld, as pictured on the cover of the first edition paperback (1970).  While the shadows they cast on the inner surface of the main Ring are visible, the shadow squares themselves unaccountably are not.

But Niven missed something critical.  As anyone who has studied Newtonian gravity, particularly the shell theorem, will remember, while there is no gravitational field inside of a uniform-density sphere, there is one on the inside of a uniform-density ring.  So while a Dyson Swarm can be stable, the ring cannot be.  Put the star in the exact center of the ring with any slight relative velocity and it will fall away from it.  Out-of-plane perturbations are stable and lead to oscillations, but in-plane perturbations grow.  And so the star falls onto the ring; which will destroy the ring either as its orbit around the star changes or as it runs into it.

This is a serious problem, which Niven’s readers were quick to point out to him.  And so what did Niven do?  He wrote a sequel.

In the sequel, The Ringworld Engineers, Niven reveals to the reader that the Ringworld was not just a Big Dumb Object.  The engineers who built it had installed an active control system: Bussard ramjets powered by fusing hydrogen from the star’s stellar wind, which had worked without maintenance for thousands of years (impressive engineering).  Then a reader pointed out that the magnetic fields from the ramjets would have fried the nervous systems of the creatures living on the Ring.  So a way to fix that shows up in the third book in the series…

The Limits Of Retconning

So Niven has been adept at saving his Ringworld from destruction.  But other problems in the setting can’t be retconned away.

In a Known Space story called “Neutron Star”, a human exploration team takes a ship with a (supposedly) indestructible hull and drops it on a near-hyperbola passing a few kilometers from the titular neutron star.  But they forgot the tidal forces, and all died, smashed into opposite ends of the hull.  This by itself is bad enough.  It gets worse when the salvage team doesn’t figure out what happened, and sends a second ship to re-enact the mission (that pilot figures things out just in time).  But Niven forgot that in flying by the star, the ships would acquire incredibly fast spins – about 40 revolutions per second.  That fast of a spin would kill any human, even if she were sitting at the center of mass of the ship: there would be an effective force gradient of several hundred gravities from one side of his head to the other.  Niven has quite sensibly not attempted to retcon that part of the plot, since then the entire story goes bye-bye.

Meanwhile, the Ringworld was inhabited by descendants of The Pak – Human Aliens who were supposedly also the ancestors of all Earth-descended humans, having settled Earth some millions of years ago.  This was impossible even when Niven wrote the first Ringworld book in 1970 and the first story featuring The Pak, The Adults; in 1967.  Genus homo traces back to the rest of the apes with a divergence time from genus Pan of 4-5 million years.  This was known by blood serum albumin work as of 1967.  Niven retconned The Pak to have also been ancestors to the chimps, gorillas, and orangutangs; but of course that doesn’t work either.  The fossil record and basic biochemical similarity between all Earth-based life rules out any panspermia, directed or otherwise, at least for everything that doesn’t do a lot of horizontal gene transfer.  And all that was known in ’67; all of the more sophisticated genetic work that’s been done since then has just been filling in the details.

But if Niven were to erase The Pak from Known Space, then none of his Ringworld-native characters would exist, and that is too big of a perturbation to keep the story within the bounds of what he’d like to tell.  And so, again, he doesn’t retcon them away.