Book Launch: How To Science Fictionally

To celebrate five years of all this stuff and nonsense, here is a new collection of posts spanning the nearly two-thousand day history of the blog.

We answer all the important topics! How can you make your space ship travel faster than light? How can you make your teleporter work? How are you going to send a message home and how are you going to style your beard?

These and many other questions are often badly answered in this compendium of essays from Camestros Felapton (that’s me!). Ranging from flippant to occasionally researched, this book answers the burning issues in modern sci-fi.

Available from these fine purveyors of electronic books:

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1020219

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/au/en/ebook/how-to-science-fictionally

Apple: Via Apple Book Store https://books.apple.com/au/book/how-to-science-fictionally/id1512054710

Barnes & Noble: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/how-to-science-fictionally-camestros-felapton/1136980315?ean=2940164068622

Scribd: https://www.scribd.com/book/460342712/How-to-Science-Fictionally

Amazon: Ha, ha, nope.

In there you will discover…

  • How to travel through space: an introduction of sorts
  • How to travel faster than light
  • How not to time travel
  • How else to time travel
  • How to survive as a time traveller
  • How to grow a beard
  • How to teleport
  • How to ansible
  • How to change your mind: Get Out and other things
  • How to keep politics out of your science fiction: Captain Bob and the Space Patrol
  • How not be human: The Being Not Human Awards
  • How to make a replicator, a replicator, a replicator…
  • How to be psychic
  • How to be a priest
  • How to duplicate people
  • How to be a pod person: Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978
  • How to catch the tube
  • How to make something invisible
  • How to fly
  • How to make a force field
  • How to hover just a little bit off the ground
  • How to blow up the Death Star and/or other doomsday weapons but mainly the Death Star
  • How not to make a phaser
  • How to make a magic gun stopping thing
  • How to change a British superhero
  • How to tell if a film is science fiction
  • How to tell the difference between fictional science and fictional magic
  • How not to alter history

The Being Not Human Awards

Robots, aliens, talking (or at least sapient) animals, AIs, demons, gods, vampires, entities, orcs, goblins, trolls, elves, dwarfs, giant spiders and guests, welcome! Please take your seats, there is plenty of room in this elegant if ageing theatre that we call Camestros Felapton’s Experience of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Genre. Get comfortable, introduce yourself to your neighbour and sit back.

I’d like to discuss with you all what it is to be you. Now I must apologise in advance. There are many you in the audience, people I love dearly, who may take offence at what I am going to say next. Yes, yes, I am looking at you Mr Spock and yes, you C3PO and there’s no point waving that screwdriver at me Doctor, nor hiding behind Gimli’s axe Legolas. I love you all but I’m sorry, this really is not about you. Yes each of you is distinctly not human in deep and notable ways as explained in great detail in the backstory section of your Wikipedia pages. However, for our purposes tonight while you may be the big stars, this is not your turn in the spotlight. We love you but we love you because you have to admit that your are not exactly not-human.

Yes, Mr Spock (and yes you too Data, no need to add a third voice C3PO) that was a double negative. Each of you are positioned as aliens as a way for people to understand the variation in human experience. On the whole that has been a positive I think. Each of you have been embraced by humans who can see aspects of themselves and their own sense of difference from other humans. I do not begrudge your roles to that end even if the idea of taking the actual variation in human experience and calling some of it alien, as if being stoical or logic or struggling with your own understanding of emotion or just being quirky and eccentric (yes, your fez is nice Doctor) makes you equivalent to being a different species. It’s a bit off when you think about it like that even if the repeated moral of your story is that being a person isn’t about what species (or machine) you are.

In short, dear favourites, none of you sitting in those front seats are ABOUT being not-human. Quite the opposite. Your alienness is simply a metaphor for our own prejudices and social norms excluding variety. And for that you get the love, the accolades and the fans. However, I must put you aside for today’s ceremonies.

Sorry, [shield’s eyes and looks up to the lighting desk] can we raise the house lights please? Particularly that very shadowy section over there? Yes, the section that appears to be generating its own anti-light and which is emitting eldritch noises? Thanks! Oh! Not to bright! Some of our guest are a little…sensitive…to photons.

Secondly I must offer my apologies to another section of the theatre. Actually could we all give a big round of applause to a guy who has been doing absolutely solid work in this industry for literally decades. You know who you are. I’m pointing right at you. Stand up and take a bow big guy. He’s my good friend and golf buddy, he’s the monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind, the one, the only (I hope) dread Cthulhu! [applause]

Cthulhu is here tonight to represent a major part of our big SF & F non-human family. We couldn’t do it without you guys. You are the monsters, the dread hordes, the onrushing threat that seeks to overwhelm the kingdom, the dark secret trapped in the unholy tomb. You guys just don’t get the credit you deserve, particularly with the conditions you have to work under. The damp, the dark, the often unquenchable fires of damnation, often without hazard pay. Bravo, bravo.

But I said you were owed an apology and you are. So often you are the fears and prejudices of your authors. Often you are the product of the internal or overt racism of your makers. Sometimes your creators (no, no Supreme Dalek, I don’t mean Davros, I mean Terry Nation, please stop screeching “Davros”) so often intend for you not to be explorations of what it might mean to be something other than human but rather to cast humanity’s own evil in an external form.

Hands (or whatever) up everybody in that section that was intended to be a metaphor for fascism? OK, OK. Lots of hands and plungers up in the air I see. Now hands up everybody who was intended to be a metaphor for communism? Yup, lots of appendages going up. Now hands up those of you who were a metaphor for both and sometimes a metaphor for uncontrolled capitalism! Ha, yes, yes Cybermen it really is amazing how many things you can be a metaphor for!

And zombies. I’m so sorry. I get that you can’t really parse what I’m saying and I know there were some pedants (yes, I do mean you Mr Spock) who said that you are by definition human and hence shouldn’t have been invited at all. However, you above all represent the urge for creators to invent beings who can be slaughtered without remorse. [weird rattling sound] Yes, excellent point Triffids, your narratives often shift to other humans being the REAL threat.

That was a timely comment as I’d like to direct everybody’s attention to the sentient plant creature section of the audience. A big hand for them all please! Yes, yes, YOU ARE GROOT! Ha, I think the Ents are just discussing something witty to say in response…they’ll have a quip to say in a couple of hours. Ha, sorry Audrey no time for a musical number tonight! You are all wonderful but please don’t let those sun lamps get on the vampires in the next row.

And by a handy coincidence that takes me to the first award of the night. It is the award for the first non human fictional creatures that made me think about what it might be like for some being to be intelligent but not in anyway like the way it is for a human to be intelligent. And the award goes to…THE TRIFFIDS FROM DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS BY JOHN WYNDHAM! [the crowd goes wild, music from the Howard Keel movie version plays,a little group of triffids clump three-leg-stumpily up the ramp to the stage.]

These guys, wow. Such, such good work. Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction owes them so much. Just look at the cheers they are getting from the zombies! These heroes of our industry have no central nervous system. They don’t have brains, we really don’t even know what kind of sense they have except hearing. Yet they can organise and plan and turn the tables on humanity. Is it some kind of collective intelligence? An emergent property from their system of communication? Nobody knows! It is the blithe obliviousness to the idea of triffids having mental states that means the triffids aren’t just another natural hazard after humanity finds itself struck by disaster. Of all the waiting rivals to the hegemony of people, it is the triffids who seize the opportunity. From us all and on behalf of the academy, please except this trophy and this prize of a large bag of potting mix.

OK calm down everybody. We’ve still a couple more awards to go. So let’s get right into it. The second prize tonight goes to the first depiction I encountered as a child of an alien ‘monster’ that really wasn’t what it seemed and which had to try and make sense of humans very quickly to stop them murdering it, thus revealing that the humans were actually the aggressive alien species after even if they din’t realise it . I can see a lot of excited candidates shifting in their seats. It’s a big category and I’ll be frank, the Silurians were a strong contender for this but the judges (yes, you Mr Spock) disputed that sapient dinosaur count as aliens. However, in the end for shear alienness I had to give this award to everybody’s favourite classic silicon-based lifeform. She’s the lava creature from Janus VI. You know her, you love her, you may have mind-melded with her (yes, you Mr Spock) it is THE HORTA FROM STAR TREK THE ORIGINAL SERIES EPISODE DEVIL IN THE DARK! [Crowd goes wild again as a kind of blobby thing squishes up to the podium.]

Congratulations! Thank you Horta representative for taking time out of your busy 50 thousand year life-cyle to be with us tonight. Please accept this trophy and this pallet of premium quality house bricks. The Horta everybody! Ha, yes Silurians, it is always the greedy mine operators who set off incidents like this. THINK BEFORE YOU DIG, PEOPLE!

Well we are nearly at the end of the night and it is time for the big award. Laestrygones and Gegenees, our final recipient is in the category of my favourite inscrutable intelligence that is manifestly a thinking thing but which surpasses the understanding of the people who encounter it thus challenging us to reconsider what it is to think and what it might a non-human intelligence be like. A tough category and one that we struggle to define boundaries for. There was a strong argument for the whatever-the-thing-is-in-Area-X in Jeff Vandemeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. A judge’s ruling (yes, you Mr Spock) disqualified the giant wandering space computer conglomerate from Star Trek: The Movie on the grounds that it was actually just the Voyager probe. That same judge really wanted to include the big space thing from Star Trek: The Voyage Home, but honestly there’s nothing inscrutable with just really liking whales — I mean that’s a pretty simple motivation when you think about it. In the end there was only once choice I could pick.

Please give a big Being Not Human Awards round of applause for…THE PLANET SOLARIS FROM STANISLAW LEM’S SOLARIS! Due to orbital mechanics and limited space in the theatre, Solaris can’t be with us tonight but to show their appreciation they have tapped into our subconscious and used their power over neutrinos to re-create a lost loved one in a manner that will be psychological traumatic for each and every one of us but will make us reconsider the nature of not only ourselves but how we might connect with minds utterly different from our own when we so often fail to even be honest with ourselves. Solaris everybody! Not just a planet but also a really bad therapist.

And that’s it for this decade’s Being Not Human Award ceremony. Thank you all for attending. Time to go back to sleep on R’lyeh Cthulhu! Ha yes Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Camestros Bortsworth wgah’nagl fhtagn to you too! See you next Thursday at the golf club! Good night one and all! Yes, yes, you ARE Groot! Drive those Ents home Groot, they may have been drinking and we don’t want them trashing Isengard again! See you Cybermen! Be nice to your Borg cousins!

Good night everybody!

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.

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]

How to duplicate people

As a trope of science fiction there is a gulf between the fantastical idea of ‘clones’ and the mundane reality of the actual science of cloning. As of yet, actual human cloning has not taken place but primates have been succesfully cloned, specifically two crab-eating macaques called Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua. Part of the gulf in concept is illustrated by the commercial application of cloning techniques to pets. While cats and dogs can be cloned to create a genetically close animal to an existing pet, basic aspects of a cat or dogs identity including their pattern of colouring ae not solely determined by their genes. A cloned pet is not going to be identical, even at a superficial level.

So while the term ‘clone’ is what is used, actual cloning does not get at the concept which is more about duplication or near duplication. Creating another copy of a person is the essence of the science-fiction concept. Duplication of genes is just a handy hook on to which the idea can be hung. Practically we have always known that monozygotic twins are not literally identical even at a superficial level and certainly not at the level of character or personality.

So plot wise how do people get duplicated?

  • Biological cloning. As discussed above this intrinsically doesn’t work because genes are only part of the picture. However, with enough hand waving and magic technology examples like the clone-troopers from Star Wars add in speeded up growth and education to create lots of near identical people. The horror of the Star Wars clones (never really explored in terms of the appalling aspects of the idea) is not creating duplicates of people but the idea of mass-manufacturing people. There is a under-explored view of industrialisation, as well as the dehumanisation of the military’s need for essentially fungible people to serve.
  • Teleportation. Typically this is more of an unwanted side-effect of the teleporter-as-fax-machine concept. With the transmit-recreate model of teleportation there is a side-effect of possible exact duplicates being created, resulting in awkward questions of identity for Commander Riker or Kamala in Think Like a Dinosaur. There’s a fascinating bit of logical implication here that results in two quite different science fiction tropes being intimately connected. Any duplication process that can create a new version of a person (including their personality and memories as well as their body) implies a method of teleportation (transmit the information to a remote location and recreate the person). Any method of teleportation that works by capturing a person as a set of information likewise implies a method of duplicating people.
  • Print people. Mur Lafferty’s Six Wakes, imagines a future where biological structures (including functioning brains) can be essentially printed by a kind of 3D printer that uses a stock substance. Taking a step away, and thinking about duplicating a person, then all the bits of a brain need to be there but it hardly matters if the actual cells contain the same cellular structure or genes just so long as they work the same way. Put another away, the resolution of the copy does not need to be so fine as to match genetics. Indeed genetics may actually be unhelpful.
  • Robot people. When we think about it, if we want to duplicate ourselves (because we have become mad with power or seek immortality or so we can go to work & go to the movies at the same time) what we actually want is a being that thinks like us and looks like us. Does it matter if actually are duplicate is some sort of silicone layer over a titanium frame? Not at all, indeed that may even be a bonus. Biology is over-rated.
  • Non-embodied duplicates. Of course to create a robot version of a person implies that it is possible to create a digital simulation of a person’s mind and personality. In that circumstance, do you even need a physical duplicate! A virtual reality duplicate may be more than good enough.
  • Mirror-universe twin. Let’s get back to physically identical duplicates. If parallel universes exist then parallel versions of you exist. Here the not-quite-the-same aspects are a plot-feature. Evil versions of you sporting a goatee but still somehow like you are likely to crop up as soon as you start hopping around universes.
  • Time-travel. Technically this is just the one version of you until you cause the time-line to splinter at which point the extra version becomes a parallel-universe twin. Even so, time travel affords a way of having more than one you in place at the same time with a simple (if mind bending) explanation of time travel.
  • Pigeon-hole principle. If you have a universe that is big enough (e.g. infinite) and which has enough people in it (e.g. effectively infinite) then the number of combinations of possible features of a person ends up being less than the number of people. In that case, there will be some people who are just exactly the same for NO REASON AT ALL other than the universe’s lack of imagination.
  • Reincarnation. Actual reincarnation beliefs are focused on the rebirth of an individual soul, although accounts may point to shared memories between the past and present versions. Fictional reincarnations provide a fantastical way for a person to be a duplicate of a long dead double. This is invariably bad news and tied up with all sorts of questions of destiny.
  • Cosmic coincidence. This is effectively the same as the pigeon-hole principle but only assumes the two people happen to look exactly alike and does not require the same personality. The coincidence of looks results in a natural doppelgänger and leads to Prisoner of Zenda like shenanigans. You can’t make this just happen though (unless you use a technique above) so it doesn’t really count as a way of duplicating somebody.
  • Surgery and hypnosis. We are now sailing into soap opera plot twists. Maybe X just looked a bit like Y and then an evil mastermind used cosmetic surgery and mind control to make them look more like Y and convince them that they are Y!
  • Just bluff. In 1854 Roger Tichborne, heir to the baronetcy of Tichborne, went missing while travelling in South America. Believed to have drowned in a shipwreck, his mother nonetheless never gave up hope. In 1865 a bankrupt butcher from the inland town of Wagga-Wagga in Australia was encouraged by a lawyer to claim that he was, in fact, the missing Roger Tichborne. Thus began the long running saga of the Tichborne Claimant. Facially only vaguely similar and otherwise quite different looking, the question remains open whether this was a lost person found or a very blatant attempt to create a second Roger Tichborne simply by sheer assertion.

A Tube Map of SF&F Genres

As with any London Tube style map, distance on the map has no connection with distance in reality. Position is about how to make everything fit. I feel like it needs more stops on the big pink Fantasy circle line. Green stops allow you to change services to mainstream rail lines. Purple stops allow you to change to the horror tram services.

There is a foot tunnel between Cyber Punk and Steam Punk.