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Science Fiction Round 38: Interstellar

2014/11/26 4 comments

This movie is beautiful.

And terrible.

And awesome.

And horrible.

All at the same time.  I loved it, but there were parts that made me want to scream and tear my hair out.

I am about to spoil EVERYTHING, and the following post is likely to be long.

And include relativity.

You have been warned.

If you would like to see some other folks’ analysis, here are a couple of posts by Phil Plait, and one by astrophysicist Katie Mack.  (Spoiler alert, of course.  And, to spoil their posts: they’re not super enthused.)

I kinda want this poster, except maybe I want the black hole instead...

I kinda want this poster, except maybe I want the black hole instead…

 The Good Stuff

The film was beautiful.  Absolutely stunning.  I loved it.

They included a Kerr black hole, with an accretion disk glowing around it, and all the myriad complications to it that are caused by the strong gravity near the event horizon.  Beautiful.

Also, the wormhole?  Gorgeous.  Thank you for finally doing a wormhole right — with the entrance as a sphere, and not a flat plane.  Yeeeeees.  And all the warping of stars around the edges.  So pretty.

This is what you get when Kip Thorne is involved from the beginning.

The movie also used the silence of space to excellent dramatic effect, mixing it up with background music in some cases.  There’s a seen where somebody is monologuing about how he’s doing the right thing, and gets cut-off by a whoosh and sudden silence halfway through when he unintentionally evacuates the room he’s in.

This is how it should be done.

And, while fantastical, I did like the presentation of the tesseract.

You Really Should Have An Intermission

This movie is three hours long.

Okay, fine, two hours and forty-nine minutes.

Before you count all the trailers and ads before the movie starts.

Look, if you’re going to have a movie that long, you should have a ten-minute intermission halfway through.

It’s a pretty good deal, really.  People get a chance to stretch their legs and use the bathroom.  The theater has a bonus opportunity to sell more soda and popcorn.  And the people who stick around the the intermission?  Somebody could treat them to some pretty starscapes and good music from the first part of the film.

Everybody wins.

NOOOOOO!!!1!1!!!  NASA DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY, WTF?  SRSLY, WTF?!?!?!?

This?  This nearly ruined the entire movie for me.  This is the part that made me want to rage at the screen, shouting acronyms and obscenities.

I restrained myself.

The whole shebang is set in the future — at least fifty years — where, following a disaster I’ll get to shortly, the population has tanked well below where it is now.

NASA has been working in secret to find a new planet for humanity to move to… because politics.  NASA was asked to bomb some places during the disastrous thing and when they refused, they were shut down and took a lot of public hatred.  So, when they started back up again, they had to be funneled their billions of dollars to save the human race in secret.

Meanwhile, the lead scientist (Professor Brand) is working, mostly by himself, on finding a way to manipulate gravity to made space stations to save everyone.  This solution is eventually achieved by one of the other characters.

Problem #1:  NASA does not bomb things.  That’s what the Air Force is for.

Problem #2: NASA does not bomb things.  In fact, they derive a huge amount of their support from good “science is awesome” publicity.  Since when would telling everyone “the world is doomed, but don’t panic, we’re working on a solution,” be a bad thing?

Problem #3: What happened to all the other countries and space agencies?  Roscosmos?  ESA?  JAXA?  The Chinese National Space Administration?  The Indian Space Research Organization?  I mean, the Canadian Space Agency usually collaborates a lot with the US, but… still.  Or did we just nuke them all to death, or something?  This is, frankly, pretty stupid, since those countries would want to save their people, too… and even if they collaborated with NASA, they would want to have representation on those missions.  Kind of like we do with the ISS right now.  Why did that go away?

Problem #4: Without that good publicity, how the heck did NASA convince people to give them that much money?

Problem #5: Scientists do not work in a vacuum.  There’s no way Professor Brand should have been the only person working on the gravity problem, much less been able to keep the secret that he thought the problem was impossible to solve.  No way.

Problem #6: Why do you need super gravity-awesome space stations to move everyone off the planet?  Heck, if you’re depopulated enough, you can do it with conventional rockets, with other kinds of super-futuristic fuel, or even with an Orion Drive, if you still have nukes left.  This seemed contrived.  Cool resulting space stations, but contrived.

And that’s not even the worst of it.

In the schools, to discourage people from being anything other than farmers, they are teaching that the moon landings were faked, in order to get Soviet Russia to spend itself into the ground.

Faked.

In textbooks.

FAKED?!?!?!?

THE MOON LANDINGS WERE NOT FAKED, YOU [REDACTED]S!!!!!  HORRIBLE CONSPIRACY THEORY ARGBARLGLARG.   [incoherent rage]

I ran out of useful words, so here's a double facepalm instead.  (Not sure where the image originates; see here.)

I ran out of useful words, so here’s a double facepalm instead. (Not sure where the image originates; see here for discussion.)

I can’t even.  Yes, they immediately indicated that this was a BAD THING, but I can’t even parse a world in which that could possibly happen.

Okay, where were we?

Oh, right, a world where that could happen…

The Blight

This sounded weird, because I’d just finished playing Dragon Age: Origins.

Apparently, some blight (of unspecified origins) is slowly killing off all the plants on Earth.  I assume this a bioweapon gone awry, somehow, even though something so completely deadly to plants is pretty ridiculous.  Although this is only discussed in the context of crops, it is directly stated that we’re going to run out of oxygen, so it definitely sounds like a complete plant-death scenario.

For bonus points, this “blight” consumes nitrogen the way we aerobic critters consume oxygen.

I am not a biologist, but I can say confidently that having something breathe nitrogen in this fashion is utter nonsense.  The fundamental chemistry just doesn’t work out.  Oxygen is useful because, essentially, you can burn stuff with it to release energy.  Nitrogen?  Not so much.  In fact, nitrogen fixation is an important biological process, where some plants and bacteria capture nitrogen so it can be used in building proteins.  This requires an input of energy to happen — you don’t get energy out that way, like you do from breathing oxygen.

So, utter nonsense.  We need something else to doom the world.

What about Eta Carinae?

Say some astrophysicist figures out that Eta Carinae is going to go supernova in some short amount of time, say 50-100 years, and we’re along the beam line of maximum radiation — very bad for Earth, but not completely fatal unless you throw in some political short-sightedness (which is easier to buy into than this Blight thing).  For maximum drama, make the exact time of explosion uncertain.

Bonus: when Eta Carinae goes, you get to show more pretty things exploding in space, with deliciously ominous background music.  What’s not to love?

Well, yes, fine, you don’t get to have an American engineer-turned-unhappy-farmer, or the whole “Dust Bowl” motif, but you have plenty of other lovely opportunities.  Perhaps, in despair and short-sightedness, we’ve been polluting more and cleaning up less — since we’re all gonna die anyway, right? — leaving all too little time to get away.  Set up a slowly failing city, unclean and dusty from lack of care and declining population, bombed in placed, simply abandoned in others… I think it could work without changing the fundamentals of the plot too much.

But, speaking of things that don’t work…

That Black Hole… what?  IT HAS PLANETS??? What the…

Erm… no.

Just no.

Just… just no.

There’s a subfield of astrophysics, called high-energy astrophysics.  (Wikipedia doesn’t actually have a page for it, but here’s one group of real scientists as an example.)  Shockingly enough, high-energy astrophysics involves high energy phenomena: supernovae, some processes around neutron stars, hot young stars, accretion disks, active galactic nuclei…

Did I just say accretion disks and AGN?

Yup, those are both powered by the simple phenomenon of “stuff falling into a black hole heating up before it falls in, or heating up other nearby stuff as it falls in.”  And by heating up, I mean emitting X-rays and gamma rays, forming one of the most punishing, hot environments you could possibly imagine.

This is, shall we say, not a good place for planets to cool down and form without getting burned up by radiation or smashed to bits by high-speed debris falling into the black hole.

This is a terrible place to look for habitable planets (even thought they find one, bah).

And… it gets worse.

Even without the ice clouds on one planet (Water-ice is denser than air, and will not float, unless you have air that’s way too dense to ever be breathable or you have some natural way to make water-ice into aerogel, which I doubt — and that made even Kip Thorne cringe) and the ridiculousness of planning their approach while the crew is in the spaceship (rather than planning meticulously from the ground years before the ship is ready to launch, as is common with current craft… and they had plenty of time to puzzle it out in the two years it took them to get out there)…

They should have anticipated the issues with time dilation on Miller’s planet.  Mostly, they should have realized that the person who landed there could only have spent an hour or two on the surface, and would not have had time to complete a thorough analysis.  (For that matter, the transmissions should have been severely redshifted, to a lower, slooooooower frequency.)

Plus, they only experienced the time dilation while on the planet.  Since the effect comes from proximity of the black hole, the guy who stayed on the Endurance shouldn’t have aged as much as he would have if he were as far away from the black hole as Earth.

Finally, it’s rather frustrating to watch the people in the Endurance get good video messages from Earth, while, for some reason, not only not being able to send messages back, but also not getting any significant habitability data from the beacons on the ground.

Despite being in orbit.

I mean, we can get more data than a simple thumbs-up from a rover on Mars… or even Voyager, decades old and way far away.  Geeze.

And maaaybe having the folks falling into the black hole would be able to avoid spaghettification — the black hole is, reportedly, 100 million solar masses, making it large enough that the event horizon is far enough away that you don’t die when you cross it — but at this point, I think I’m done.

Look, I’m okay with having science not match up with the reality, but, when you’re hyping the movie as being super scientifically accurate?  And when even the internal logic has issues?  Then I have issues.

Counting, and Bechdel

Low and failed, sadly.  At least they had the daughter be the kid who was super good at physics.  (And, by the way, why are all the survivors from Earth white?)

That, and, well… I’m sorry, but gushing about how love transcends time and space makes me squirm.  Just because you love the guy who landed on one planet, doesn’t mean you’re going to the right place.  Even though you were right in the end, in this case, that’s not a good reason to be right.  Too much cliché.

Just… give me a few more pretty wormholes, okay?

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Fantasy Round 30: Dragon Age Origins

2014/11/21 Leave a comment

One of the things that has been heavily eating into my free time for the last… months, is the game Dragon Age: Origins.  I managed to get a copy free, largely because Bioware is heavily promoting the sequel, Dragon Age: Inquisition.

Overall, I like the game, although it has its flaws.

And, as ever, spoilers abound below.

Yes, there's at least one dragon in the game.  And yes, you get to kill it.

Yes, there’s at least one dragon in the game. And yes, you get to kill it.

Character Complexity and Plot Choice

This is probably the best part of the game.  Interactions with your allies and other NPCs actually allow for a fairly complex set of dialog options, and ultimately influence the long-run of how the game plays out.  You can befriend your party members, or tick them off so much that they ditch you or even attack you.  Being able to actually hear the conversations, rather than just read text, is also fun.

Admittedly, most of the choices are fairly binary in the end.  (I can understand how having multiple choices makes the programming more difficult.)  But it is interesting to watch how your meddling in, say, the succession of the dwarven kingdom of Orzammar plays out.  I appreciate the consistency.

That said: if I can pause combat, why won’t you let me pause the cutscenes or dialog?  Very frustrating when I need to skip off for a moment to do something, but the important NPC is still talking.

That, and, well… this game is channeling Lord of the Rings so, so much.  Hordes of Always Evil enemies produced in darkness due to horribly evil magical manipulation?  Check.  Likely self-sacrifice to defeat a single evil enemy who’s controling all the evil dudes?  Check.  But it’s mostly about the music and the ambiance really reminding me of the movies.

Grey and Black

The story is very dark.

Like, super-mega-dark.  The choices are not usually between good and bad, but bad and worse.  And sometimes it’s not clear which option is worse.

Consider, for example, the succession to the throne of Orzammar.  If you make one choice, a reformer takes the throne. He makes life better for the casteless dwarves and the otherwise downtrodden, but he also acts as a bit of a tyrant and dissolves the Assembly.  The other guy is less reform-minded, keeps the Assembly in place, and eventually gets overtaken by a bunch of revolutionaries if you choose to suppore him instead.

Not clear where the win is.  On the other hand… things like that happen in real world politics, too.  So the game lets you explore some of those moral ambiguities.

You Said It Would Be Balanced…

The introduction to the game states that, culturally, there’s no distinction between men and women in the continent of Thedas — they are free to choose their professions, be warrior or artist, be the nobility running the place, and so forth.

So, I figured I would test that assertion: I counted.

Yup.  In a realistic world where there was no difference, I would expect about half of the characters I encounter in the story should be women, and about half men.

To make the counting easier to manage, I stuck to NPCs that were significant enough to have a name (“Alistair”) or an important title (“Master of the Proving Grounds”) and also got some zoom-in dialog time.  Here’s the finaly tally:

  • Male elf: 12
  • Female elf: 9
  • Male human: 71
  • Female human: 33
  • Male dwarf: 31
  • Female dwarf: 13
  • Male werewolf: 1
  • Female werewolf: 2
  • Male golem: 1
  • Male oak spirit: 1

The overall total is dominated by the human characters, but it leaves me with a highly unsatisfying overall ratio of 117 male to 57 female.  2/3 of all characters are male.

And that’s just the characters with significant speaking roles.  It gets worse when you start hitting the mooks that the party mows through, and the minor NPCs.  Darkspawn?  All male.  Cultists?  Mostly male, and the few female cultists are wearing such short skirts that after you’ve killed them, you can see their underwear.  Demons?  All male, except for the succubi.  Because obviously demons of desire have to be scanitly clad females.  Mercenaries?  Also mostly male.  Bandits?  Male.  Shopkeepers?  All male.  Friendly militia?  Male.

Admittedly, this is actually not bad for a game… there are some women with significant amounts of power and influence (notably the dwarf paragon Branka and Queen Anora… with the former being evil and obsessive and the latter needing rescue) and if I hadn’t counted the overall numbers, I probably would have thought it was fine.

Consider, for example, this study, with some further discussion here, which found that in family targeted films and TV shows… about a third of characters were women.  And they tend to be wearing “sexy” attire much more frequently than men.  And the ratio is even worse for background characters in crowd scenes.  Apparently, women are never curious or angry… or nearby… yikes.

Existence Check

2014/11/17 1 comment

So you all know, we’re still here!  There just hasn’t been a lot of post-writing lately, due to working on other projects.

First, I have plans to write a post about the latest space stuff — that’s in-progress.

Second, I’ve been working a great deal on novel writing.  Progress is slow but steady.

Third, I haven’t seen Interstellar yet, but it’s high on the list of things to see, comment upon, and nitpick.

Finally, I’ve also been working on writing assorted short stories.  The current score: 30 submissions, 25 rejections, 4 outstanding, 1 acceptance.

Yup, I’ve actually managed to sell a fictional short story.  For real.  I’m excited.  It will probably be a while before it’s published, but I’ll put a link up once it’s available for reading.

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