How to make a replicator

Replicators are more of a staple of Star Trek than other franchises. As we’ve seen in Star Trek: Picard, DS9 and Voyager, the fun concept can be a bit limiting to plot and characterisation to the extent that later versions of Trek find ways for people to cook and make stuff without the use of a replicator. Jean-Luc Picard’s brother refused to have a replicator in the house, carrying on a family tradition. So while they are a fun idea, I’m not surprised they haven’t caught on in science fiction quite so much. If anything, they make stories just a little more dull without adding many interesting dilemmas (either practical or moral).

Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes took a different spin on the notion of a food replicator to imagine a kind of 3D printer that can assemble organic objects. The same technology (or something very similar) is used to create new versions of the crew.

The Six Wakes style replicator strikes me as a concept we might start approaching. There are already ways of printing some kinds of food and I can imagine that becoming gradually more sophisticated.

Star Trek replicators are interesting though. Presumably they work using the apparent mastery of manipulation of mass-energy that the Federation has. I’m sure the mechanics of them have been explained within Star Trek lore but let’s speculate about replicators we could create if we have imaginary technology.

  • Rejigged teleporters. Teleporters of the fax-machine style disassemble matter into energy and then store the pattern in some sort of buffer system. Infamously, they can be turned into copying machines. Switch off the safeties and build some more permanent buffers and you have a replicator. Want some earl-grey-hot? Make yourself a cup and then teleport it away. Then teleport it back to the same spot. Now the cup of tea is permanently stored in the buffer and you can re-teleport it back whenever you want a cup.
  • Analyse and recreate. This is conceptually a cross between the 3D printer idea and the teleporter. You need command over the very nature of matter and energy but this time you have a machine that creates a digital model of earl-grey-hot by scanning lots of cups of tea. The advantage of this is that you can change parameters like tea strength or temperature and also combine models e.g. replicate your earl-grey-hot in a wine glass or a nice cab-sav in a tea cup.
  • Read minds. I’ll assume we have some magic and what we want to access is the platonic ideal of a early-grey-hot. Access the higher realms of reality and use your magical power to bring an instances of the ideal cup of earl grey into the mundane world. How to find that ideal cup? Well, the world of ideals is concepts so you just have to look deep into the minds of people who like a nice cup of tea and grab their concept of a nice cup of tea…and so on. It’s easy from there…
  • Use time travel. This is theft and surely breaks all sorts of laws of conservation of mass. Use a time machine to take a cup of tea from the past. Drink the cup of tea. Now, use your time machine to go back to the point just before you stole the cup of tea from the past. Steal the tea again but don’t drink it. Instead, send the tea back into the past to just AFTER you stole the cup of tea the first time. Yes, yes, I know, somehow that doesn’t all add up.
  • Buy tea bags and a decent electric kettle. This only works for creating tea.
  • Digitise your brain. You now exist in a virtual world. Pay developers to make virtual versions of a nice cup of earl-grey-hot. Wait. The developers get back to you explaining that there are delays in the next sprint. Wait. The user-acceptance-testing version of the product is sent to you with a 13 hour turn around. The developers appear to have made a beer glass full of sputum. Explain that it isn’t what you asked for. No, no, you have to lodge a Jira ticket. Wait. Get frustrated and ask why is the cup-of-tea project delayed. The developers explain that you changed the specifications and they need to re-code the whole thing. They send you a bill for the extra time. Repeat this process multiple times. You end up with a saucer of apple juice. You drink that instead.
  • Build a vast planet of robots. The robots create vast quantities of stuff. Use transdimensional wormholes to access the stuff but claim it is replicated.

Timothy and the Orthography of Biddlesworth

It was a cold March day and Timothy the Talking Cat was stuck indoors. An icy wind would catch on the cat-flap in the kitchen and set the thing flapping noisily in a way that drove the cat away from his comfort position by the infrared glow of the Aga.

Pacing the extensive hallways of Felapton Towers, the loquacious cat felt edgy, unnerved, not entirely as comfortable in his plush purple skin as he should feel. Was it just the unseasonal wind? Was it the photo of Boris Johnson he had unwisely stuck to the bathroom door so that eyes of the mop-haired tyrant seemed to follow you as you passed him by on the way to the lavatory? Or…was it something else…something deeper that only the finally tuned feline instincts of the world’s greatest editor could intuit? Or was it the other unseasonal wind that had come from Timothy unwisely stealing Camestros’s coconut and mushroom chilli from the fridge and eating it in one sitting as a late night feast?

Timothy dismissed his apprehensions and made his way to the extensive library. He strolled bast the shelves of Louis XIV-style Kindle and made his way to the bejewelled Android tablet section of the library. Picking a vintage 2014 Galaxy Tab off the shelf at random he flicked open the first app he saw and began browing.

In a large comfortable chair that was just barely maintaining its integrity after years of misuse as a scratching post by the resident cat, sat Camestros busy reading the latest copy of The Sydney Morning Herald in a bid to maintain an increasingly shaky cover story that he was actual a meat robot living in Australia. For extra verisimilitude he was holding the paper upside down while trying to make notes to help him distinguish between Peter Dutton and Sontaran Commander Lynx. When suddenly his antipodean research was loudly interrupted by the banshee like wail of the cat.

“Omy gosh!” cried Camestros, “you aren’t going to have coconut chilli diarrhoea again?”. The cat stared at him sarcastically, which is a trick only cats know how to do.

“No, I am not going to have coconut chilli diarrhoea — something which I note that you have no idea how to spell never mind clean up properly. I am afraid we have far, far more serious trouble that any intestinal issues caused by your poor cooking and irresponsible positioning of left overs where any innocent cat might find them inside a locked fridge at midnight. No, dear Camelstrop we are facing a far, far deeper crisis. Come hither and look upon what I have found.” replied the cat, without ever once pausing in his direct speech so that the text could be broken up with a brief ‘he said’ or maybe a ‘cat replied’.

Camestros, not wanting to disturb the blanket on his knees, used the heels of his feet to drag the chair across the floor without standing up from it. The cat shifted its otherwise blank expression from sarcastic to sardonic with a mere flick of a whisker.

After the screeching of the chair feet across the parquetry floor had finished and Camestros had reached a position approximate to the cat’s, he looked over Tim’s shoulder to see what the cat had found.

“It’s just Google Maps!” said Camestros, relieved, “I was worried it was going to be some dead animal you’d found behind a wainscot.”

“Firstly you have no idea what a wainscot is. Secondly I have vowed not to show you any more dead animals as you simply do not appreciate them. Thirdly look at the map! Look carefully at the description of our address!”

Camestros adjusted the pince-nez on his nose and read aloud: “Felapton Towers, Biddlesworth, Biddlesworthshire, UK…Wait…what? Biddlesworth?”

“Exactly! You maybe slow of wit but even you can see that something is afoot. Bidlesworth is spelt with only one ‘d’!” replied Timothy triumphantly.

“No, no, that’s not it at all. Our town is, or was, called ‘Bortsworth’ not ‘Biddlesworth’ with either one or two d’s. No, my dear cat, something much worse is going on than the orthography of Biddlesworth!” exclaimed Camestros, “Timothy, everything we knew or thought we knew about ourselves is wrong!”

“Oh no,” said Timothy, “you can’t mean!”

“Yes, our LORE has changed!”

“Noooooooo!!!!!!!” said Timothy quoting his most famous creation, Chiselled McEdifice or was that his most famous creation anymore? Now that the very backstory to Timothy the Talking Cat had changed from Bortsworth to Biddlesworth (with one or two d’s) could any statement about his past be made with any certainty.

“Quick to the kitchen cupboard!” cried Camestros, “We have not a moment to lose!”

“I’d rather not go into the kitchen,” said Timothy, “the cat flap keeps flapping without me making it flap and I don’t like it.”

“Ok, understood. Quick, let me go to the kitchen cupboard!” cried Camestros ammendedly, “I have not a moment to lose.” And off he went leaving the blanket and cat-damaged comfy chair behind.

After much rummaging around and at least one bang on the old noggin, Camestros returned with two aerosol cans.

“The cupboard was a mess. I suspect, Mr Atomic our cleaning robot has ceased to exist during the clumsy re-writing of our backstories!”

“Meh,” said Timothy, “I never really felt he added anything.”

“Also Straw Puppy has gone!” added Camestros.

“That is an outrage!” cried Timothy.

“Luckily I have just the thing!” said Camestros holding up two aerosol cans garishly labelled “RetConBeGon” in comical letters.

[Camestros] Quick, spray it all over yourself!
[Tim] We are back in dialogue format!
[Camestros] That shows it is working!
[Mr Atomic] I smell the sweet smell of propellants.
[Camestros] Mr Atomic! You’re back! Quick! We are having a canonical-crisis! Takes these cans and spray the whole house! The whole town! The whole count!
[Mr Atomic] Excited as I am to engage in the wholesale dispersal of cleaning products I can’t help but note that our collective backstories have never been known for their consistency.
[Timothy] Listen here you no-good anthropomorphised excuse for a Roomba, whether I am a human-sized cat or a regular-sized cat with human sized ambitions is MY choice but I will not have some unknown interloper interfere with my precious town of BIDLESWORTH!
[Camestros] (Bortsworth)
[Timothy] (sorry) [sprays a bit more RetConBeGon on their armpits] I will not have some unknown interloper interfere with my precious town of BORTSWORTH!
[Mr Atomic] Very commendable sir. I shall release the crop-dusting drones fortwith.
[Camestros] Hoorah! We are saved!
[Timothy] For now…but who know when the sinister figure behind all this will strike again…

[Cut to a shadowy meat robot in Sydney] Oh, I shall strike again little cat. Just you wait and see….

How to be psychic

Are psychic powers a trojan horse from the world of magic that have snuck into science fiction? Psychic powers are almost indistinguishable from wish fulfilment in aggregate and only take on a resemblance of speculation about reality when codified into subtypes with Graeco-Latin names with sciency connotations.

But psychic powers aren’t going to vanish from science fiction any time soon. Doctor Who has psychic paper and telepathic circuits in their TARDIS, Star Trek has empaths and telepathic Vulcans, and Star Wars has a conflict between psychic factions as its core mythology. Firefly and Babylon 5 had psychics. Dune, Stranger in a Strange Land, Le Guin’s Ekumen universe, Asimov’s Foundation series, multiple Philip K Dick works, each contain various beings with mental powers. Science Fiction has a permission note for amazing mental abilities had has used that licence freely.

‘Psionics’ are a core conceit of science fiction in much the same way that faster than light travel is. It is so baked into the history of the genre that a person with amazing mental powers is something the audience for sci-fi just sorts of expects to encounter. Unlike warp-drives et al it is a marker of the strange. When Spock begins a mind meld the incidental music on classic Trek shifts to spooky.

So how can we dress up characters having magical powers amid a supposedly science and technology world?

  • Don’t. One step is simply to banish psychic powers to the outer darkness. After all plenty of science fiction doesn’t have psychic powers. True, I can’t think of a major film/TV sci-fi franchise that doesn’t…but surely psychic powers are not a compulsory part of science fiction.
  • Don’t dress it up. If we put The Phantom Menace’s midichlorians aside, Star Wars treats the Force as a quasi-religous power operated by space wizards. Force powers look ubiquitous in the Star Wars galaxy but only because we follow force-using characters. The films and adjacent media suggest that ordinary people regard it as either magic or superstition. Even senior members of the Empire military who *know Darth Vader* personally are sceptical right up to the point that ex-Anakin strangles them from a distance. Star Wars rejects scepticism about magic powers and even sympathetic characters who are sceptical are shown to be wrong (e.g. Han Solo). It is a universe of miracles.
  • Brains are radios. Telepathy at least makes some sort of sense. After all brains really do use electricity and presumably that electrical activity can be detected from a distance. Brain-computer interfaces are real actual technology (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brain%E2%80%93computer_interface ). Quite how another brain might pick up remotely another brain’s activity is unclear but there is some merit in the idea that of all the things in the universe that might be able to make sense of brain activity is another brain. Classic Trek’s very limited telepathy requires Spock to physically touch another person’s head. However, even if we imagine Spock’s fingers have some sort of EEG like capability, Spock’s capacity to mind meld with almost anything intelligent pushes even his ring-fenced powers into spooky territory.
  • Brains are quantum woo-woo. As I’ve said before, we don’t really have a strong concept of what we mean by ‘intelligence’. We know we can make electro-mechanical devices that can do clever things (i.e. computers) but we don’t know if brains are just a very complex electro-chemical equivalent. Physicist Roger Penrose has argued that our current understanding of physics is insufficient to explain intelligence (I think his argument is weak but it is hard to show the opposite without building a functioning brain from the ground up). So maybe brains are doing something weird at the sub-atomic level…
  • Brains tap into the quantum-sub-ether-interdimensional-ultra-force-vortex-thingy. Following on from the above, if brains need extra made-up physics just to do regular stuff like crosswords, arguing with your cat or writing rambling blog-posts, then why can’t brains make use of this whole unknown physics to do other stuff? We can hardly complain about psionics using fictional fundamental forces when phasers, light sabres, force fields, tractor beams, and even robots sort of hovering just a bit off the ground may also rely on unknown physics.
  • Minds aren’t brains and brains are just the giant USB cable joining the mental world to your body. Mind-brain dualism has a respectable history in philosophy even if it offends a more materialist view of reality. If your mind is some other kind of thing then maybe minds can interact in some other kind of way. You can call it the psychic plain or you can dress it up in inter-dimensional language but once you go down this route then even faster-than-light telepathic communication begins to make (fictional) sense.
  • Ha ha but telekinesis is obvious nonsense. Yeah, it is hard to make telekinesis make any kind of sense except…’Spooky’ version of how brains/minds can exist that rely on special unknown physics have a basic problem. Somehow, a mind that exists in a psychic plain can still make your body do things via your brain…but that necessarily implies that a mind in this other realm of physics can affect change at a macro level in more conventional physics. Voila! Telekinesis is far from spooky but is almost a requirement (at a restricted level) by having minds distinct from brains.
  • Reverse Platonism. I’m wandering straight into magic now but at least magic with a veneer of rational philosophical traditions. In a Platonic view of reality, abstractions such as ‘circle’ or ‘good’ are the higher reality and that reality is something we can access through rational, logical inquiry. I can infer the properties of a perfect circle even though our flawed reality can never have such a thing as a perfect circle. But what if I’m really, really smart and spend my life being raised by Vulcans in a Jedi academy that is attached to the Second Foundation base on the ruins of Trantor? Maybe then my mind is just so clever that I can manipulate the higher Platonic reality and affect change in our more mundane reality? Wooooooo! This is the principle underlying wish-fulfilment taken up a few levels. What it fits nicely with is the trope that psychic powers are a product of extreme mental discipline. Train with monks (or Vulcans or the Second Foundation) long enough and your mind becomes so smart you can manipulate reality.
  • I thought so hard I just disappeared. A word of caution though. If your mental abilities become to acute, you may accidentally transcend reality and disappear. If you find yourself in that situation then immediately engage with something that will bring your mental powers down. Fox News, lots of beer, might work. Avoid powerful psychoactive substances and sensory deprivation chambers.

How to make a force field

Force fields want to be two different kinds of thing at the same time. They want the physical presence, fixed location and barrier qualities of matter but somehow at the same time be energy. The nearest natural example is Earth’s own magnetic field which does not operate as a barrier per se but does effectively deflect the impact of the solar wind. Deflecting/diverting energy around an object makes more sense and interestingly that idea also points towards invisibility devices and cloaking devices.

However, the classic force field acts more as a barrier than a system of energy diversion. Not unlike a physical barrier, for dramatic purposes the more a force field is hit by weapons the weaker it gets. Other qualities of fictional force fields include:

  • Transparent but usually partly visible (either glows or glows when touched).
  • Requires power to be maintained.
  • Selectively permeable. Some energy can pass through (e.g. light) and sometimes physical objects can pass through. Sometimes it lets air through but prevents solid objects and sometimes vice-veras. Personal shields in Dune let slow things through for example, whereas shields on hanger-bays in Star Wars let space ships in but stop the air evacuating.
  • Centrally controlled.
  • Has a distinct shape and location. Unlike Earth’s magnetic field (which is everywhere on Earth and dissipates gradually) a force field occupies very defined space.

Arguably, any society that is advanced enough to control gravity has a sufficient understanding and control over fundamental forces that maybe anything is possible. I think I can break down the fictional science of force fields into two basic options.

  • The force field is built using principles of forces and energy beyond our understanding. Of course that raises all sorts of other questions about how the rest of the future technology is more limited.
    • For spherical force fields maybe it is some fundamental force that we aren’t familiar with currently. The force acts at very, very specific distances.
  • The force field is more physical than it looks.

For example, maybe the force field is actually a cloud of many tiny objects. Imagine many microscopic drones that are also computer controlled and fly about along specific routes. Quite how, I don’t know, but tiny computer controlled objects give some of the physicality and selectivity of how force fields appear in science fiction.

Come to think of it, tiny energy emitting drones flying around in fixed positions would also help explain how light sabres work. Light sabres themselves have many of the same issues as force fields to the extent that they would appear to be the same technology.

Skipping back to Star Trek, force fields also (sometimes) stop teleportation. I think that makes sense for any kind of teleportation where essentially the transportation occurs by beaming a person as energy from one place to another.

Finally, maybe the terms ‘force’ and ‘field’ are just misdirection — at least for the space ship style deflector shield style. Maybe your spaceship is just covered with tiny emitters that can fire lasers, particle beams and/or tiny bullets at any incoming objects or beams. The appearance of a distinct layer is an illusion. The force field appears that way because that is the optimal distance at which an incoming beam etc can be intercepted after detection.

How to hover just a little bit off the ground

In my ongoing quest to consider how to accomplish all sorts of fictional feats fictionally, I must confess to being a little bit stumped by a recurring one. Flying is one thing but hovering just a little bit is a repeated visual indication of futuristic technology. Star Wars in particular is replete with a kind of hovering-a-bit technology that transitions from a handy way for moving heavy object, to vehicles that fly very close to the ground, to presumably the full-on flying vehicles shown on Coruscant.

How best to even describe this? A kind of limited anti-gravity? Intentionally restricted flight? Whereas many other fanciful physical effects in science fiction have clear rules, the limited hover is typically under explored. However, given the command of forces needed for the standard artificial gravity required by space-opera to keep everybody walking around, it makes sense that a kind of limited neutralisation of gravity also makes sense.

We can throw in some rules. Firstly the technology we currently have for hovercraft doesn’t count. The science-fiction hover is noiseless and unobtrusive. It is meant to look effortless beyond maybe a glow or a soft hum. Hovering by the means of big turbines blowing air doesn’t count. Similarly, while it might consume some power, hovering science-fictionally is shown as inexpensive. I think I recall a kind of animal drawn cart in The Mandalorian where the cart itself had not contact with the ground, suggesting a technology that just sort of works once it is up and running.

Likewise, it is technology that doesn’t require special surfaces to work. It is a lot easier to imagine devices being able to hover within the Starship Enterprise because the whole ship must have a highly complex control of gravitational forces (as well as engines that literally warp space). Yet, it is not something we do see within Star Trek. I assume we don’t see it in Trek because it would have been a tricky effect in the 1960s and hence didn’t become a ‘thing’ for Star Trek. For Star Wars, Luke’s speeder appears to hover using a neat practical effect involving mirrors and from that point on hovering became a thing within Star Wars.

Famously, Back to the Future 2 introduced hoverboards as a near-future technology that we were promised but which clearly hasn’t arrived. The hoverboard also lives in this unclear space between something that is almost but not quite a full on flying machine but with an implication of cheapness and simple utility. It’s hard to see how the fictional 2015 could have cheap hoverboards for teenagers without having the same technology everywhere.

Of course magnetic levitation is a real thing (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnetic_levitation ) and that also gives a clue for the concept we are looking for. “Levitation” is the concept we are looking for but techniques such as acoustic levitation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acoustic_levitation) don’t really match the kind of science-ficitional levitation we are discussing. Likewise, real-world examples like maglev trains don’t come close to the kind of hovering within the science fiction trope. Optical levitation perhaps has some of the features but it is currently only possible with tiny objects.

Of course, I’m not interested in building an actual levitation device but rather hand-waving at a fictional one.

  • Control over the geometry of space-time. That sounds grand but it is implied by the existence of artificial gravity on space ships. If you can walk around the Millennium Falcon, then there is the technology to manipulate gravity at a very fine level. Quite how that translates to hovering, I don’t know.
  • Scaled up manipulation of fundamental forces. Of course everything in the universe is under the sway of forces that repel and attract. Repulsive forces are what stop everything in the universe just shmooshing altogether. At a fundamental particle level, forces can be attractive or repulsive at different differences. Our levitating slab of frozen Han Solo may be sitting in a sweet spot of altered fundamental forces of nature. Gravity is stopping things from floating away completely but the natural repulsion of matter is operating at an exaggerated scale.
  • It is actual flying. What I mean is the technology for levitating is actually whatever the routine technology for flying is but some how intentionally limited. An engineer can take a screwdriver to one of those Star Wars levitating palettes, switch off a limiter of some kind and have a full on aircraft.

A priest in a novel

There was a whole other essay that spun off into to far too many tangents. Metaphors, analogies and examples gather their own velocity and head off in directions that take them beyond what is useful. However, I ended up with this instead, which works on its own.

I’m thinking about reader expectations and how they apply to genres and also how knowledge of an author’s beliefs shapes those expectations. For this essay consider a character, we’ll call them Helen, who is a priest or a nun or some other kind of cleric. The point being they are overtly and officially tied to a religion and in a social role whose purpose is that they act as an intermediary between people and god(s).

Imagine we encounter Helen early in a story. How does genre shape what kind of expectations we might have about god and gods in Helen’s world?

Imagine Helen is a character in a contemporary “literary” novel set in the present day. Helen’s presence by itself doesn’t imply anything very much about the role God or gods will play in the story. Further, Helen will have theological beliefs as a character that we won’t necessarily expect to be assertions about how the world she lives in actually is. Similarly, those beliefs may or may not reflect those of the author.

Imagine Helen is a character in a fantasy novel. It’s not 100% certain but I’d suggest we are more likely to expect Helen to have some actual access to a supernatural and god-like being. If Helen expresses theological beliefs, it as a minimum suggests these may be part of the wider world-building i.e. she is being used as a character by the author to brief us on some aspects of how this fantasy world works. The connection between the theological mechanics of this fantasy world and the author’s actual theological beliefs is complex. The author may be bringing with them unexamined ideas about the nature of religion or they may be purposefully examining some of their own beliefs or what they present may be utterly different to what they believe. The text alone may be inadequate (while containing clues or indications).

Imagine Helen in a novel set in a future society. She might be a hint that the story will have a supernatural element, she might be more like our first example but I think my initial expectation (until the rest of the novel made it clear) was that the author has view about how religion operates in a society. The author may or may not agree with Helen’s views and may but without further evidence, I’d take Helen’s social role as the author asserting some belief about how religion operates. I’d be very interested in what the author had to say about religion in contemporary society. However, without knowing more, I’d be cautious about saying what the author believes about the mechanics of religion based on the text alone.

I could go on. Horror or urban fantasy would have their own twists on those examples.

I was brought up as a Catholic and I was still a practising Catholic (if a sceptical one) when I first read Lord of the Rings and (more relevantly) The Silmarillion. I was older when I read Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series and I think had shifted more to atheism by then*. In both cases we have Catholic authors bringing with them Catholic beliefs to worlds where religion and the supernatural play a significant role.

The overt fantasy theology in The Silmarillion (or rather, in the Ainulindalë at the beginning of the book) is usually taken as telling us something TRUE about the setting of the book (i.e. these are real gods that exist within the setting) that we know not to be the actual theological beliefs of JRR Tolkien but within which we can see Catholic ideas once we know that they are there. Could a protestant have written the same story? I’m not sure that question makes sense as a counterfactual given how personal authorship is, so let me rephrase it. If the author of The Silmarillion was anonymous and we knew nothing about them how confident could we be of what their religious beliefs were based on the text alone? Hard to say given how much we know about Tolkien but I would say it would be very difficult to make confident assertions.

We could, reasonably, conclude that the author had thought a lot about god and gods and we could note that they adopt in the story a unitary, ultimate god from which the other gods derive. However, we wouldn’t know if that reflected the author’s beliefs e.g. the Ainulindalë presents a polytheistic theology with elements of monotheism that is different from Catholic beliefs.

Flipped around, it is still legitimate given what we DO know about Tolkien’s actual beliefs and reasonably draw conclusions about how they shape the fictional theology of his world. The significance of some (eg the primacy of Ilúvatar) grows and the significance of others lessens or is reshaped (eg to what extent the gods and demon gods reflect angels).

With Gene Wolfe’s Urth the Catholic influences are more overt in the society he presents. Without knowing about Wolfe’s actual beliefs, the novels clearly are written by somebody interested in and informed about Catholicism and Catholic societies. That Severian becomes more Jesus-like and more messianic (often unwillingly) throughout can also be easily seen without knowing what the author’s beliefs are. However, the ambiguities in the stories are substantial. Severian’s order is clearly modelled on Catholic priestly or monastic orders but they are torturers and deeply morally ambiguous. Severian is becoming a literal saviour of humanity but his powers derive from the intervention of benign aliens seeking to literally get the sun working. If the author of these books were an enigma, it would be hard to conclude whether they were a devout-but-critical Catholic, an ex-Catholic or just somebody who was fascinated by Catholicism aesthetically.

Again, flipping it around, seeing how Gene Wolfe’s beliefs influence his work is certainly illuminating. We can draw meaningful conclusions with the additional information that help inform and enhance the work. It becomes easier to see what Wolfe examines in the work and what might be unexamined assumptions about the world.

Ah, I’ve reached the end of this without having a conclusion. The author isn’t dead but texts are undetermined by authorial belief. Knowing what an author believes informs a text but inferring an author’s beliefs from a text is fraught and even more so in a fantasy or science fictional setting.

*[It was more of a slide than a sudden disenchantment or loss of faith]

Invasion of the Body Snatchers – 1978

I realised much later that I had missed off an important subset of examples from my post on how to duplicate people. If you are some sort of plant-based alien species drifting on the solar winds you can just use pods to grow duplicates of people while they are sleeping. This is the premise of the 1955 serialised novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney and the more famous 1956 movie directed by Don Siegel Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The 1978 remake of Siegel’s film is somehow both sillier and more serious. Directed by Philip Kaufman who would later direct The Right Stuff, the film is distanced in time from the Cold War Red Scare/Lavender Scare anxieties of the original. It follows a more overtly horror aspect and hence fits in with the exploration of the intersection of horror and science-fiction also exemplified by Alien in the following year. Those two films even share an actor, Veronica Cartwright who played Lambert in Alien and Nancy Bellicec in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Where the original film is set in a small town, the update shifted to San Francisco and has an overall bleaker feel. Famously, the film ends badly for humanity with a shot that reveals that Donald Sutherland is now a pod-person as he points his finger and makes an ungodly howl at Veronica Cartwright in a image that has since been meme-ified into ubiquity.

Kaufman ups the level of the basic competence of the unfortunate protagonists. The central character of Elizabeth Driscoll (played by Brooke Adams) is a research scientist with an interest in botany who notices the strange plants growing around San Francisco right at the start of the film. Matthew Bennell (played by Donald Sutherland) is a senior person in the Department of Health and well positioned to make the right calls about a public emergency. Dr. David Kibner (an un-Spocked Leonard Nimoy) is a celebrity psychiatrist who when we meet him has already noticed a sudden wave of people with an apparent delusion that their spouses aren’t their spouses — the mayor is also one of his patients and he has his private number. Jack Bellicec as an aspiring poet is less well equipped for an alien invasion (played by a Jeff Goldblum who is so young that it is adorable) but his mud-bath business owning wife Nancy (played by Veronica Cartwright) is literally genre-savvy. She engages in banter with a customer reading Immanuel Velikovsky’s pseudoscientific Worlds in Collision with a recommendation that he read Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker* instead.

However, despite the group’s combined qualities to better cope with an invasion of pod-people the film slowly reveals that none of them ever had a chance. While we see events from the protagonist’s eyes (initially Brooke Adams but later more centred on Donald Sutherland) which creates an impression that things have only just started, it quickly becomes clear that in reality the invasion is almost complete by the time that it starts to become obvious. A substantial hint is given that the invasion has already progressed to far by a delightful cameo by Kevin McCarthy who played the lead in the original film and who reprises the character’s wild and panicked warnings from near the end of the original.

Where the film works less well is that alienating paranoia intrinsic to all the versions of Body Snatchers, is here detached from wider themes. I’m not saying that tapping into fears of communism or sexuality makes for better films just that the core quality of the film feels a little under-developed. There is a hint of a feminist aspect, in that we see two women desperately trying to explain to healthcare professionals that there is something very wrong with their husbands and being patronised and talked down to. Leonard Nimoy’s psychiatrist is given a duel role of expounding the need for rational explanations and later (as a pod person) explaining how there is now no need for either love or hate. However, the film doesn’t develop those themes deeply.

There is though something weird and fun about the combination of Sutherland, Nimoy and Goldblum in the same film. All three have had careers in which they play odd and often cerebral men but in such different circumstances that it is almost dislocating that their careers overlap here. Goldblum is recognisably Goldblum but devoid of some of the more pronounced Goldblum mannerism. There is a point in the film where Veronica Cartwright discovers the only partly formed pod-person duplicate of her husband and it is described as a copy of him but lacking much of the detail and it is an oddly apt description of the Goldblum in the film, like he is the pod-person version of Ian Malcolm. He also is given lines about alien invasions that serve as unintended dramatic irony given his later appearance in Independence Day.

I remember seeing this film on television and it both scaring and horrifying me. While I have seen the original many times, this was only the second time I have seen it. Noticeably, the gory and disturbing visual effects have not aged well. The shocking reveal of the malformed dog-human pod person created from the sleeping busker gave me nightmares (aided by a dread of going to sleep straight after being allowed to stay up late to watch it) — sadly now the man-faced dog is more funny than horrible. However, the unsettling sound track and the creeping sense that nobody can be trusted still unnerves.

The aliens have no agenda beyond existing. They don’t hate humanity and it isn’t clear the extent to which they genuinely feel continuity with their past selves or a simply alien beings pretending to be their human counterpart. The multiple questions about identity and how we might tie it to persistence of memory (which the pod-people have) is not explored but mainly because of the films core premise: everything is already too late by the time the humans start fighting back. We are seeing the final days of a war that humanity believe is just the initial attack.

Well worth rewatching if only for some excellent performances by the five leads. The call backs to the original (including Don Siegel as a taxi-driver) and the science-fiction references all add to the flavour of a film that feels like the director gathered characters together for an ensemble drama about middle-class lives and loves in 1970’s San Francisco but instead threw an alien invasion at them.

Banjo dog-man deserves their own sequel though — the story of an accidental hybrid between a busker and his dog by a confused alien pod, as it wanders through post-alien invasion California.

*[Which I’ve never read and I really should]