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Science Fiction Round 26: Farscape

2013/09/28 3 comments

Farscape is awesome.  It ran from 1999 to 2003, and, thanks to Jim Henson (yes, that’s the guy behind the Muppets and many other puppets) even had some aliens that weren’t just Rubber Forehead Aliens.  And, although the science is rather squishy, there is plot.  Much plot.

Which is spoiled below.  You have been warned.

***

These are some characters.  They're all aliens, except the human guy in front.  The weird-looking guy on top is a puppet.

These are some characters. They’re all aliens, except the human guy in front. The weird-looking guy on top is a puppet.

Politics and Politics

There is intrigue and betrayal.  Lots and lots.  And lots.  Including one villain who does a full-on heel-face turn, and another who moves into enemy-of-my-enemy territory.  But that’s the small scale.  On the grand scale, we have massive interplanetary empires duking it out for dominance, or politics between factions on a single planet.

Some of it works.  Some of it… strains credulity.

On the grander scale, it eventually develops that the Peacekeepers, who are the initial antagonists, are perhaps not as bad as the more powerful and equally grumpy Scarrans.  Both are chasing down a “wormhole weapon,” which can supposedly be made with the knowledge of John Crichton, the series’ hero.  There’s plenty of discussion of mutually-assured destruction, “peace” with a single superpower holding such a weapon, and the issues of galaxy-destroying devices.  There are also many deals back and forth — and plenty of backstabbing — as the people involved go back-and-forth for power.

On the other hand… the politics on Earth are a little wonky.  When Crichton gets back to Earth after being away for several years, it’s post 9/11, and the US is being… well, xenophobic and self-centered, and refusing to share science stuffs learned from the visiting aliens with other countries.  John objects, but the local Americans are very stubborn.  Very, very stubborn.  Unreasonably so, in fact.  Especially given that in today’s world, secrets like that aren’t going to be kept for very long anyway.  Heck, the workings of nuclear fusion weren’t.  I wonder how much of this shortsighted nationalism on the part of the fictional US reflects on the fact that the show was produced in Australia — and if the strained presentation of the US government is indicative of how the US is viewed internationally.  A bit disturbing.

Grey and Gray Morality

This is a major contrast to Star Trek.  At least in the original series — it touches more closely to the tone of DS9, where there was also a war on.

Scorpius is one of the key examples.  Whose side is he on this time?  When we first meet him, he’s trying to find Crichton so he can brain-drain him to get at wormhole tech.  We get to see a sympathetic side to him, when we learn that he’s half-Scarran, and was badly abused by them before joining the Peacekeepers.  And then he plays mind-games with Crichton.  And saves his life.  And threatens his friends.  And the Scarrans think Scorpius is their spy in the Peacekeeper ranks.  And when Scorpius gets dumped by the Peacekeepers for a particularly large debacle, he goes looking for Crichton… ostensibly to protect him and his knowledge.  In sum, Scorpius is a delightfully creepy and ambiguous character.  With the result that the scariest image of him is at the end of the final miniseries, where he is grinning, showing all his sharp pointy teeth, watching his enemies admit defeat.

Meanwhile, our heroes are often less than completely heroic.  A few characters — notably Rigel and Chianna — have issues with greed and stealing things or lying because they can.  Others have issues with rage and a desire for vengeance.  In the midst of this, Crichton is often playing the role of the one clear-headed party member, although as time passes, others also take on that role.  But even Crichton is not immune — he threatens.  He plots.  He helps destroy a Peacekeeper carrier… which also carries civilians and children unrelated to his problems except for being in a bad location.  We never learn how many of them didn’t make it off before the ship blew.  Perhaps most jarring is when he goes to an alternate universe to get information which he can only obtain by killing someone.  He tries to convince himself that it’s okay, because they were going to die in an hour anyway, and the information will save many lives… but… well.  It’s pretty dark.

The Shape of an Alien

On a cheerier note, this actually varies.  A bit.  The show is still constrained by the fact that most of its actors are human, but the regular use of puppets helps break the stereotype of using human actors with varying makeup.  We have Rigel, who’s a small alien that likes to ride around in a puppet-convenient hover chair.  There is also Pilot, an alien with four arms who is physically joined with Moya, the alive and artificially engineered living ship who ferries our crew around.

On the other hand, we are still left with a question: With all the aliens in the galaxy, surely there are some that don’t have bilateral symmetry?  All the vertebrates on Earth do, due to having a shared ancestor.  But, there are no intelligent aliens descended from something like starfish?  Or, perhaps more interesting, something similar to the trichordates that went extinct on Earth long ago?  They had tri-lateral symmetry.  I’d love to see what a good puppeteer could come up with for that.

Speaking of the aliens…

Some Aliens Are Human

This is one of the few cases where some kind of ancient alien abduction makes some kind of sense.  (Contrast: the Known Space setting.)  In this case, a bunch of ancient humans were abducted by aliens, deliberately from a remote and backward planet.  They were genetically engineered, in order to serve as Peacekeepers and, well, maintain the peace as a species .  (Politics shifted over the following millennia.)

This works great.  By having humans actually evolve on Earth (as all the evidence suggests) rather than be deposited from elsewhere, it’s actually reasonably consistent.  For a bonus, it gives us a nearly-human spacefaring group (the Peacekeepers) to interact with.  The main issue I have is with some of the modifications to the Peacekeepers.  One of humans’ big advantages is the whole sweating business — we’re better at marathons and persistence hunting than most other animals in part because we’re good at dissipating waste heat.  The Peacekeepers?  Lack sweat glands, and have health issues if they get too hot.  This seems… silly.

Science Goes Squish and Wormholes Glow Blue

Squish.

A lot of elements remind me of Star Trek, actually.  For the most part, the science is equally squishy.  Even leaving aside the obvious issues with faster-than-light travel, the biology is extremely strange.  If Rigel eats certain compounds, his pee is highly combustible.  He farts helium.  D’Argo has a super-long tongue with knock-out venom.  Where does that tongue fit inside his head, anyway?  And it gets better:  Zann can do something called “sharing unity,” which is somewhat reminiscent of the Vulcan mind-meld.  Both Stark and Zann have some mystical capabilities.  Stark can survive being vaporized.  There’s an alien who can duplicate people without apparently needing to conserve mass.  And so on.  On the positive side, at least they’re usually good about re-using capabilities that show up earlier in the show.  Even if they are bizarre.

Meanwhile, having the wormholes glow blue may actually make some sense — it ties nicely into Cherenkov radiation, which is emitted by particles that are traveling faster than the speed of light in a given medium.  (Quick recap: nothing travels faster than light does in vacuum, but light goes more slowly through matter than through vacuum.)  So, maybe that’s just Cherenkov coming off of particles that are just escaping the wormhole edge.  Cool.

Some of the wormhole properties bother me, though.  As is done in many sci-fi franchises (including DS9), wormholes look like doors, with a front and a back, and from the side, they look like a narrow edge.  I don’t think this is what they would actually look like.  (Skipping over the problems of making them, of course.)  Consider the two-dimensional case — you’ve got a wormhole punched through a folded-over sheet, like the diagram in the Wikipedia article.  If you were a bug inside the sheet, you wouldn’t see a circular doorway.  The wormhole entrance would look like a line from every direction; after circling it, you could tell that it was a circle in shape.  And there wouldn’t be walls for you to notice.  It would be like looking into a window (if you could have a line segment be a window) to wherever the wormhole goes, with distortions at the edges.

If you translate that idea into three-dimensions, you don’t get a hole that looks like a tunnel.  Instead, you have a sphere.  Let’s call the place where you are, the entrance.  You can look into the entrance-sphere from any direction.  That lets you look out in the corresponding direction from the exit sphere.  And, of course, vice-versa.  The geometry would be more complicated for the kind of wormhole-network that we see in Farscape, but I think this basic idea would still hold.

I think this would be an awesome, if somewhat tricky, effect to implement in a TV show.  If somebody’s actually done this somewhere… let me know.  I’d like to see it.

Choose Your Own Adventure 82: Back to School

2013/09/26 6 comments

The previous post in the series is here.

Given that in this universe, servants are occasionally looked at — you have vague ideas of what security at the palace looks like — I think the net choice here is 82.  Time to play student and hide out at the University.

Part 82

“I have a couple of ideas,” you say to Lehhev.  “Before I give you the description, would you mind telling me how the academy is doing these days?”

Lehhev fiddles over the talisman as he speaks, preparing it for the rest of the spell.  “Oh, well enough.  The Emperor has been funding us quite well so long as we also provide training to his… specialists.”  He gives you an odd look at the last word.  “He also mostly overlooks our experiments, so long as the property damage isn’t too severe.  There’s been some trouble with a couple of the noble sponsors, but nothing we can’t manage.”  He sighs, then said, “I’m just worried that the Emperor may be getting a little more involved.  He’s been trying to influence faculty appointments.  I don’t like it.  I haven’t said so very loudly, mind, but I don’t like it.”

You nod slowly.  “How much attention does he pay to the students?”

“Unless he’s paying their tuition, not much.”

“Can you get me a place to stay as a student?”

Lehhev nods.  “And I can fill in the paperwork to match.  A visiting student for a semester.  With, let’s see, an uncertain specialty…”

“With an interest in illusions for entertainment and communication,” you add.  “That should be sufficiently innocuous, and I have the skill to back it up if necessary.”

“Consider it done,” he says, then adds a gesture and a few spoken words of a spell.  He hands you the completed talisman.  “Don’t activate it until you’ve left.  I don’t want the guards thinking they have a net increase in the number of messengers.”

“Of course,” you say.  He takes a few minutes to find and fill out some papers for you, with an appropriately bland pseudonym.

Once that is done, and the papers are tucked away, you leave.  As you open the door, you add, “And I’ll take your reply back to the sender.”

“Oh, thank you,” he says, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards ever so slightly.

***

It takes Lehhev two days, but he does manage to put together a compass that will point to the other target of the spell.  He needed the time to prevent it from constantly pointing towards you.

You spend the time “moving in” to the student quarters and keeping your head down.  You’re going by the suitably innocuous name of Jaylen Benniv, a new student from the western part of the Empire.  In addition to looking at a few books relevant to your “official” magical interests, you find a few relating to older runes and complex spellcasting and rituals.  You did not study the latter as much as the faster spells more relevant to investigations or combat, and the quick review is helpful.  You have time enough to find only one book that includes the “oblivion” rune, and it’s a weighty tome that lists nearly every rune known to mankind.  “Oblivion” is marked as being an extremely dangerous symbol, which is infrequently used in massively destructive battle-spells and magical minefields.  Misuse can be deadly.  The entry makes a tantalizing reference to the origin of the symbol — something about ancient myths and destructive powers that were permanently sealed away.

Lehhev is aware of that much already, and only says that he has much more to do when he hands you the compass.  He wishes you luck, and you wish him the same.

It’s the morning of third day after your arrival in Alederick when you finally take a “pleasant ride” around town to “see the sights,” should anyone from the academy ask you what you are doing.  In truth, you travel the concentric circles of the city streets, starting from the outer gates and always spiraling closer in, watching the needle of the compass.

To your complete lack of surprise, but significant concern, it points constantly to nearly the center of the city.  To the palace itself.  At the last, you circle the palace grounds and gardens, and there is no doubt.

The Choices

Option 85:  This is annoying, but not unexpected.  You can still use a change of clothes to sneak into the palace and look around, although there may be a mage of sufficient caliber to see through Lehhev’s magical disguise.

Option 86:  The palace itself is too dangerous.  It may be best to act patiently, waiting around one of the main entrances and seeing if your target walks by.  And follow if possible, to learn that he/she is doing.

Option 87:  Screw subtlety, it’s time for a direct approach.  Barge on in and intimidate whoever you come across into telling you everything.

Choose Your Own Adventure 79: Disentangling the Magic

2013/09/15 4 comments

The last post in the series is here.

Your decision was to state your plan to Thedane Lehhev — which is, apparently, to dissolve the spell on you first, and then confront the Emperor.

Part 79

“Reasonable enough,” Lehhev says in reply.  “But it’s going to take time.”

“How long?”

“I don’t know.”  He taps the offending spellbook.  “I’m going to have to read this thoroughly first, and look up a few relevant references.  Ortleb’s treatise on bound spells is likely…”  He catches himself, then says, “Weeks, perhaps, at best.  And I’ll likely need access to   Can you avoid being caught for that long?”

“I’ll do my best.  You can’t go any faster?”

“Research takes time.”  He pauses, then adds, “And, as I said, I’ll need to find the other target of the spell.  But I think there is one thing I can do quickly.”  He pulls out a drawer, and rummages around in his desk for a few minutes.  He eventually drops a compass on top of the oblivion spellbook.  The compass is missing its needle.  “Oh, well, it’s here somewhere. If you come back tomorrow, after I’ve read this, I’m sure I could make a magical compass that will home in on the other target of the spell.  It’s a subtle one until activated, so it’s tricky, and I’ll have to cross match against the half currently cast on you to exclude it…”  He breathes, then said, “It’ll point towards the other target of the spell.  Always.  Once I find all the parts I need.”

“Tomorrow then.”

“Yes.  Do you know where you’ll be hiding?”

“I do,” you say, mostly truthfully, but without adding further details.  You still need to select between plans.  Until you’ve made up your mind, perhaps it’s best if Lehhev doesn’t know where you are planning to go to ground.  And perhaps even then.

“Oh!  One more thing…” he says, quickly moving towards another bookshelf.  “One thing I can do for you now is give you a better disguise.  One that most mages’ spells won’t see through.”   He pulls a small metal talisman out from behind a few more heavy tomes.  “Any preferences?”

Once you decide where you want to hide, you can ask Lehhev to tailor his disguise to your needs.

The Options

Option 81:  Hide out at your place, in the Soldier’s Quarter, disguised as a tramp squatting there.  It’s the last place they’d look for you, right?

Option 82:  Pretend to be a new student at the academy.  Hide out in the library and do some studying of your own.  Lehhev can probably get you a room in the students’ quarters.  (This choice requires telling Lehhev exactly what you intend.)

Option 83:  Stick with the messenger disguise, pretend you’re waiting for someone to give you a message, and stay at a nearby inn.

Option 84:  Disguise yourself as one of the Emperor’s servants.  You can blend in, and perhaps learn something useful at the same time.

Fantasy Round 22.1: Dresden Files

Note: This post was written jointly by both Michael and Rachel

The Dresden Files is Jim Butcher’s long-running urban fantasy series, combining detective fiction with a Fantasy Kitchen Sink, a bit of a noir style, and shout-outs to a lot of current scifi and fantasy fan culture.  Butcher started the series as part of a writing course, and wrote it in deliberate contrast to the sword-and-sorcery stories he had done before.  He’s described the series as a happy accident, “like penicillin”, and has been putting out a book a year on average since 2000 – along with a large number of short stories, novellets, and novellas set in the same universe.  The franchise has developed to include comics, a table-top role-playing game, and a short-lived TV adaptation.

One of Butcher’s particularly successful strategies with the series has been how the various episodes stitch together to form a larger narrative.  He does have plans for ending the series, apparently with “an apocalyptic trilogy”.  If he sticks to plan, there will be a total of something like 24 novels in the series – of which 14 are already out.  This gives a lot of material to talk about.

Given that there are a lot of books, there’s a lot of material to cover, so we’ll be breaking this up over several posts, and hitting some of the major themes as we go.  For the first post, we’ll cover the first three novels — Storm Front, Fool Moon, and Grave Peril.

***

The Mechanics

One of the fun parts for this series is that the magic system is fairly consistent, even as new elements appear.

The wizardry done by our main character, Harry Dresden, is naturally at the center of this.  Magic (at least of the human wizard variety) is fueled by willpower and emotion, and channeled using… well, whatever the practitioner thinks will work.  This typically involves words borrowed from a language the person doesn’t speak (like Latin) so as to avoid any issues with diluting the meaning to the wizard of the spell word he’s using.  Of course, there are also big rituals, which are necessary if you want to do any serious magic… and for extra mojo, you can do scary things.  Like orgies or animal sacrifice.

When making potions, the basic “recipe” is always essentially the same.  Similarly, the principle of a magic circle — drawn to keep magical forces either in or out — shows up repeatedly.  Another critical concept that develops through the series is the idea of a threshold — a home maintained by mortal humans has a natural mystical barrier against everything that goes bump in the night.  This consistency, blended with various ideas drawn from myth, helps hold the whole setting together.

Dresden Himself

The snark.  So much snark.

Dresden is a wizard so interested in thumbing his nose at the more senior wizards that he puts an ad in the Chicago yellow pages for his services.  As a wizard private investigator.  He does not do parties or love potions.  (The one time he does make a love potion, it goes horribly awry.)  It’s awesome.

And this continues throughout — as Dresden encounters threats above his weight class, he quips and provokes until he can find a way out of trouble.  Sometimes including provoking the antagonist into doing something rash.  He references Star Wars and popular culture.  And make the most amusing complaints when matters go awry.

Poor Communication Kills

This is really annoying.

Especially since it happens more than once.

For instance, in the very first book, he refuses to explain exactly what’s going on to his cop friend Karrin Murphy when she keeps finding bodies with their hearts exploded out of their chests.  This eventually ticks her off enough to suspect he might be behind it all… and her investigations result in her getting attacked.  (Don’t worry, she survives it.)  His refusal to explain the workings of a potentially dangerous magic circle (whose purpose was to contain a particularly dangerous and uncontrollable kind of werewolf) to a sometime-student of his resulted in her not being able to complete it… not asking for further help from him… and ultimately getting killed when the spell fails.  And later, his refusal to explain what he was doing to Susan Rodriguez, his love interest, resulted in her sneaking in to a party run by vampires without a proper invitation to follow up a lead of her own… and ultimately rather severe consequences to her health.

Dresden eventually learns from this… well, mostly.  It’s a regular failing of his, which results in some interesting events and character development later in the series.

But it’s quite infuriating when a little explanation would help so much.

The Monsters

We’ve got vampires.  And werewolves.  And faeries.  And demons.  And ghosts.  And a dragon (although the dragon just stands there smoking ominously).  Just in the first three books!  And, of course, our monsters are different.

To keep things interesting, there are three (or four…) kinds of vampires, five kinds of werewolves, and an unknown number of kinds of faerie, with differing degrees of power and different kinds of evil.  The monsters are generally a blend of what is familiar from myth and what Dresden needs for the story.  For instance, Black Court vampires are most well known… because this book by Bram Stoker was a propaganda piece to help mortals kill them – but they don’t act exactly like Stoker said they did.  And, best of all?  Butcher’s fairly consistent with the capabilities and weaknesses of different monsters throughout the story.  Demons can be summoned by saying their name three times… and that detail becomes an important plot point in Grave Peril, for instance.

Doing Some Research

Another item that’s often fun is that for many things, Butcher does the research — on items real and mythological.  For instance, in Grave Peril, he describes the nastiness of a certain poisonous mushroom fairly accurately, as well as its partial antidote and the need for immediate hospitalization after eating it, antidote or not.  (Serious, don’t try this at home, kids.  Or anywhere else, for that matter.) He covers the myths pretty well, too.   Leanansidhe is an example of this — she’s clearly based on Leanan sidhe, a beautiful muse from Celtic folklore.

On the other hand, he either doesn’t do all the research, or the world of Dresden is significantly different from our own.  In Fool Moon, one character explicitly notes a large increase in crime rates over the preceding several years.  Given that the story is set in roughly the early 2000s, this can’t actually be true: crime rates in the US have been dropping steadily for a long time.  But, speaking of breaks with reality…

The Masquerade

Yup, we’ve got that.  Maximum-strength version.

Evil wizard (technically an unlicensed warlock) kills people by making their hearts explode out of their chests from across the city.  No evidence of entry into the place, no defensive wounds on the victims, no signs of any struggle or violence.  Guy who did it is found dead in his burned-down house, with lots of occult paraphernalia, and a supply of a drug that’s been killing people and giving them bizarre visions in a way that is entirely impossible by the normal rules of biochemistry.  Publicly-accepted conclusion?  Drug ring gone bad.

Super-sized wolf-like monster is blasted out through the wall of a police station and entirely through the building across the street – after mauling everybody in the holding cells and fighting its way through a large number of cops (and one wizard).  Later, a grainy low-light video is sent to the media by a reporter, showing one of those cops and the wizard taking down the monster.  Copied and airs on several networks before being “disappeared”.  Publicly-accepted conclusion?  Hoax.

Burning vampire skeleton, from one of the Blade movies.  If this happened to the first of a set of odd-looking remains from a fire, there would be a rather thorough investigation.  And then the Red Court vampires are unmasked, and the others follow.

Burning vampire skeleton, from one of the Blade movies. If this happened to the first of a set of odd-looking remains from a fire, there would be a rather thorough investigation. And then the Red Court vampires are unmasked, and the others follow.

Wizard torches building full of vampires, burning it to the ground.  Forensic examination shows that there are a large number of humanoid but non-human remains mixed in with normal bodies in the debris.  Said remains have large canines, large tongues, distorted and elongated limbs, large stomachs that were partially filled with blood, and a tendency to catch fire when exposed to sunlight or to full-spectrum bulbs.  Publicly-accepted conclusion?  “They’re normal bodies, damaged by the fire.  And get that medical examiner to a therapist – he must be seeing things”.

And that’s just the single most outrageous masquerade failures that aren’t acknowledged from each of the first three books.  None of those make sense.  The first one might be swept under the rug, if the drug task force didn’t take samples of the drug to figure out exactly what people had been poisoning themselves with.  In reality, unambiguous forensic evidence is nowhere as pervasive as CSI would lead you to believe (we may do a post on that at some point).  But the other two don’t wash, especially the last one where a bunch of dead vampires are sitting in the morgue.  Butcher tries to handwave it by saying that the Red Court is well-connected and arranges the bodies to disappear, but like the higher crime rate that’s inconsistent with the rest of the like-reality-unless-noted atmosphere of the series.

So the Dresdenverse has an Industrial Strength Masquerade, for no adequately explained reason – other than the obvious of it being necessary for the stories that Butcher wants to tell.  And, as you’ll see in the other posts about the series, the lack of consistency in the Masquerade’s being maintained only gets worse as we go.

And yet, the series is awesome.

Your Turn, Round 2-5: Conlanging

Continuing my series of posts of posts describing my Fermi Problems setting and encouraging you to find as many problems with it as possible:

Can You Tell Me What This Means?

Text handed to you by a neari mathematician.  You think they may be using base-12.  What does it mean? Note: the white blob in the outermost ring is a typo.

Text handed to you by a neari mathematician. You think they may be using base-12. What does it mean?
Note: the white blob in the outermost ring is a typo.

The context for this puzzle:

Some time ago, I came across Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit. (now available in an expanded print edition).  As it says on the tin, it’s a guide to the process of conlanging: inventing, constructing, and using artificial languages for different purposes – specifically, for human or human-like communication rather than the more restricted languages used for sending instructions to and for communication between computer systems.  There is a fairly large community of conlangers, with its own internet fora, groups, and conferences.  And there are a lot of constructed languages.

Humans have deliberately constructed languages for many reasons: attempts (successful and not) to aid communication between each other either in specific circumstances or in general; to illustrate the different ways that languages can be structured; as works of art; as a language game; and as a way of adding to the world-building for science fiction and fantasy settings.  For fantasy settings, Tolkien was one of the first and one of the most thorough in his use of constructed languages in his world-building.  Appropriately for a scholar of languages and mythology, he designed the languages first, and then the mythology of Middle-Earth, and only then did he write the books.  Of constructed languages made for science fiction settings, Klingon is probably the most popular – to the point of having Shakespearean plays printed in the ‘original’ Klingon and having entire operas composed in it.

I’ve been playing around a bit with languages for various groups of people in the Fermi Problems setting, be they neari, ursian, human, or something else.  I showed a small sample of what I’m calling Clade-neari script in my concept art post a while back.  I’ve now added a bit more to the defined vocabulary, grammar, and syntax of Clade-neari (and also simplified a number of previously-defined glyphs).  I’ve been inspired by Rosenfelder’s kit, but also by learning a very little about how human sign languages work and by considering the different constraints imposed by neari anatomy and by the environments the neari live in.   Nearly all conlanging is done for speaking humans or at least for characters who are voiced by human actors.  Neari langauges, and the scripts that represent them, should differ from human languages (spoken or signed) in many different ways – although there will still be some similarities.

To judge how well I’m doing that, I’m going to be posting some script samples here.  Please tell me what you think of them!  This is both a language game and a world-building exercise.

An important note: in contrast to some previous language construction I’ve done, Clade-neari is supposed to be a naturalistic language and is not being designed to be easy to translate.  That said, this particular sample should be possible to translate without more formal discussion of the language here.  So, what does it mean?