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.

How to fly

In the previous entry in this very irregular series of how to fictionally do a thing, I suggested that invisibility was one of the oldest of these fantastical ideas. It was only afterwards that it occurred to me that flight was just as old and just as fantastical. After all the myth of Icarus is far more famous than Plato’s Ring of Gyges, if we are talking about Ancient Greek sources. The difference is that we’ve stopped thinking of flight as being fantastical and think of it as more of a chore involving cramped seats and humiliating security checks.

Flight is still fantastical though. The superhero genre in particular indulges in essentially magical flight for a plethora of superheroes but we also have Harry Potter’s broomsticks and a in science fiction a host of machines that just casually hover about without the aid of great big blades chopping the air. So this is how to get airborne.

  • Be lighter than air. Proven technology! Anything less dense than air will be buoyant in air and float upwards. How to do that?
    • Use hot air and have a hot air balloon (or dirigible).
    • Use a gas that is lighter than air such as helium or burst-into-flames gas aka hydrogen.
    • Have some super light but amazingly rigid material contain a space that is tautologically full of vacuum.
    • You know that thing that Ant Man does where he goes really big rather than really small? If we assume he stays the same mass then his overall density should drop and he should float.*
    • Somehow make all the air really heavy so you float. I suspect this might also stop everybody’s lungs from working properly so you die. I suspect all I’ve done is invent swimming in water.
  • Push the air around really fast.
    • One way is to go really fast in general but have fixed wings that push the air down i.e. a plane.
    • Or do exactly the same thing but use Bernoulli’s principle to explain why it helps you fly.
    • Use a massive rocket to explode gases and push those out downwards. If you are feeling scatological do this using a superhero’s bottom an intestinal gas.
    • Have articulated wings beat the air in a pattern that generates lift, like a bird and/or be a bird. You may need hollow bones.
    • Have big blades that spin around really fast and push the air downwards to generate lift i.e. a helicopter.
    • Use a mix of all these things for a really complex flying machine.
  • Mess with gravity. OK but what if you don’t have to go downwards?
    • Anti-gravity. Magnetic forces attract and repel, so just figure out a way to make gravity repel. Ideally have it like a switch you can turn on or off. Yes, this does imply you can make some sort of perpetual motion machine but we can let the accountants take care of that.
    • Gravity blocker aka Cavorite. Slightly different concept to anti-gravity. Here you negate or shield an object from the force of gravity. There still needs to be some force to move the object upwards but only enough to deal with inertia.
    • Distort space-time geometries. See my previous discussion of faster than light travel.
  • Be in space. Either get far enough away from any planetary masses or be in orbit around them and you can float about as much as you like. Perhaps more than you like if your bones start suffering from it.
  • Use some other force. Gravity sucks. It’s seriously weak. A fridge magnet can defy the combined gravity of the mass of a planet.
    • Some sort of hand wave about electro-magnetism.
    • Less of a hand wave about superconducting materials and electro-magnetism.
    • Definitely magnets somehow.
    • The Strong Force is over a hundred times stronger than electromagnetism! So that’s very strong. Surely that can help! [reads fine print: “At the range of 10−15 m “. Hmm OK maybe not a viable distance.]
    • The Weak Force doesn’t sound so great and also I have really no idea what it does and the explanations seriously don’t help. The good news is very few people know enough about it to contradict any vague claims you might make about it. So claim that using a clever material that helps you fly because of the weak nuclear force and you will annoy some physicists but seriously, how many physicists are there in the world anyhow? Not many.
  • Magic and or psychic powers. Yes, that is a non-explanation but you can point to forces that are stronger than gravity such as love, hate, believing in one’s self, nature and rainbows.
  • Be immaterial. I think this coincides with several of the other things listed above but it deserves its own entry. If you don’t actually have any substance because you are a ghost, spirit or astral projection then there is nothing stopping you flying. Simple.
  • Be virtual. If you exist in a virtual environment as a computer simulation then gravity is also simulated. By hacking the system or somehow by becoming “The One” you should be able to fly. Hints that you might be “The One” is if your name is an anagram of “One”. If Brian Eno starts flying unaided that may indicate we are all in a simulation.
  • Take lots of drugs. You won’t actually fly and you should not attempt to fly.

At the end of this, I realise I don’t know what the in-universe explanation of how Superman can fly is. I get that he gets his powers from being a Kryptonian living on Earth with its yellow sun that fuels his powers but what makes him fly? Answers on a postcard please.

*[As this doesn’t happen, we have to infer that his mass changes when he gets big or small. However, if you are imagining some amazing ability to shrink or grow large then I think the density thing is actually way more interesting.

How to…make something invisible

Of all science fiction objectives, invisibility is one of the oldest and most plausible. Plato’s fable of the Ring of Gyges in The Republic used the idea of invisibility to discuss ethics. H.G.Wells added the concept to the staples of science fiction with The Invisible Man. The plausible aspect is that many things in real life (such as air) are invisible and others are transparent (such as glass) or can become effectively invisible (such as putting glass in water).

Making a person or a random object invisible is a more substantial challenge and the idea of invisibility is as much a trope of fantasy (Bilbo’s ring, Harry Potter’s cloak) as science fiction (Romulan cloaking device).

Let’s consider the ways:

  • Darkness: stop or reduce the amount of light being reflected off you. At one level this is simply wearing dark clothes at night. At another level this is using materials and shape to reduce the amount of radio-waves from RADAR bouncing off a stealth fighter.
  • Camouflage: the second most basic idea is to match the appearance of the target (person or object) with the background.
  • True invisibility: here light passes through the target making them perfectly transparent. There are issues – specifically if you were perfectly transparent then you couldn’t see as the light wouldn’t be absorbed by your eyes. However, invisibility need not be 100% to be effective. In The Hobbit, Bilbo still casts a shadow in bright sunlight (and as we learn in Lord of the Rings, the ring wearer is visible in other ways…)*
  • Bend light around you: if light goes around you instead of through you then maybe an invisibility cloak would be possible! Talk of complex metamaterials abounds! On the other hand here’s a Canadian company doing something vaguely like it with a sheet that’s a lenticular lens: https://www.iflscience.com/technology/a-canadian-company-has-created-an-incredible-invisibility-shield/
  • Dynamic camouflage: make your front look like your background with electronics. At it’s simplest get a digital projector to project an image of what is behind you on to your front! Stepping a little further into technology that doesn’t quite exist yet, use nano-electronic materials that can detect incoming light from one direction and project it from another.
  • Neuro invisibility: maybe manipulating light is hard work. Perhaps it is easier to hack the brain. Your system of visual perception already does a lot of editing and interpolating – hack that (how? waves hands…somehow…) and your ‘eyes’ can no longer see the target object.
  • Psychic or psychological invisibility: you can’t see what your brain won’t let you see. By using magical mind control powers and suddenly nobody can see you. Beware though, this might not work against robots, dogs or bats.
  • Be very small: technically this is not invisibility but if you are very small your are very hard to see.
  • Don’t exist: if you are in some way immaterial (a ghost, a psychic projection, a being embodied in electromagnetic waves etc) then you are just naturally invisible. I guess ghosts have reverse psychic invisibility i.e. technically not there so actually invisible but people can see them because of spooky things.
  • Hide and misdirect: stage magic makes things invisible by hiding objects or getting people to look where the thing isn’t. This requires a lot of work and a controlled environment.

*[The thing about Bilbo’s shadow makes me think that the One Ring makes its user actually transparent but not 100% transparent i.e. it is a physical effect. However, most other aspects of the One Ring seem to be psychic effects, so possibly it is psychic invisibility as well and the shadow thing is a bug in how it messes with your perception.]

How to blow up the Death Star and/or other doomsday weapons but mainly the Death Star

I don’t always sleep well but when I do suffer from stress induced insomnia it’s never at the initial falling asleep stage. One excellent talent I have is falling asleep. I’m very good at it but it’s not a skill much celebrated.

If I do wake up in the middle of the night (and some claim that’s a normal sleep pattern) the trick I’ve found for getting back to sleep is finding something that is both complex enough to be distracting from more stressful thoughts but so inconsequential as to not be stressful itself. Anyway, I woke up last night worried about multiple things that the long-suffering meat robot has to deal with when Monday comes around. So many things in fact that I spent the darkest hours plotting how to blow up the Death Star in some detail.

The canonical method for blowing up the Death Star was determined by two factors. The first was George Lucas wanting to fit in a sequence based on WW2 movies, in particular Dambusters and 633 Squadron. The second was to give Luke a specific heroic feat to conclude the story of the first film. I’m not going to gainsay those aesthetic choices.

However, as a piece of problem solving the whole strategy is less than perfect.

  1. Huge numbers of people are killed. Sure, it’s war and self-defence but the people killed are also people enslaved by an evil empire run by a mind controlling space wizard. Fewer deaths would be inherently good.
  2. A large proportion of the Rebellion’s pilots are killed in the attempt. There are deaths on both sides and while the bulk of the casualties are on the Imperial side, the proportional cost to the Rebellion is huge. We know they are short of pilots because they happily let Luke Skywalker fly an X-Wing.
  3. The plan can’t actually work. To be fair, the Rebellion doesn’t know this and they also have very little choice. In the end though, the plan ONLY works because Luke has hitherto untapped force powers and because he gets in-flight advice from a Jedi space-ghost.
  4. The plan is last ditch in terms of timing. The Death Star is destroyed just at the point at which it could destroy the Rebel base. Some margin of error in the timing would have been better as a plan (although less good dramatically).
  5. The Rebels have no idea what a safe distance for blowing up a Death Star is. For all they knew, the explosion could have destroyed them or at least what remains of their fleet. The Death Star has enough power to blow up a planet, turning it into a bomb is less than wise.

Point 3

I’d like to deal with point 3 first mainly because the plot manoeuvrers the Rebellion into the position where it apparently has no choice other than a last-ditch attack using small fighters. The issue is that they can’t actually land a bomb into the magic vent despite it’s resemblance to a womp-rat.

Is there a better option? Instead of firing a bomb into the vent, wouldn’t it be better to place the bomb manually? In terms of war films, think The Guns of Navarone instead of 633 Squadron. No time to infiltrate the Death Star, I hear you say? We’ll get back to that but for the moment we don’t need anybody to get into the Death Star as the vent is on the outside. Drop off some commandos into the trench and they can plant the bomb.

Too hard? Too much of a suicide mission? Well, it is even easier than that. Astromech droids are designed to crawl about on the surface of space vessels and interact with devices on the surface. Drop an R2 unit equipped with a bomb into the trench and let them beep-boop its way to the vent. The tie-fighters will try and blow it up but now they will be the ones trying to hit a small target in a trench while the x-wings attack them.

It would be a noble sacrifice by droid but the Rebellion doesn’t otherwise show much respect for the lives and autonomy of droids. This plan doesn’t address the huge number of casualties but arguably it would lead to marginally fewer x-wing pilot deaths.

Obi-Wan’s commandos

I couldn’t think of a better solution than R2-commandos without there being a bit more space in the plot. Infiltrating the Death Star with demolition experts is a safe plan all round but the story gives no time for that to happen. We do know that it is possible to infiltrate the Death Star as the crew of the Millennium Falcon manage it somewhat unwittingly, earlier in the film (to what extent Darth Vader lets them is another matter).

To fit a commando raid into the story would require Obi-Wan to access the plans to the Death Star in R2D2, make sense of them, understand the weakness and assemble a team to do the job. None of which happens or has time to happen.

However, assuming that Obi-Wan could do all that, then points 2, 3, 4 and 5 can be dealt with. Plant a bomb and blow up the Death Star from a safe distance.

There’s got to be a better way

I know I’m a bit R2 fixated, but the plucky little droid can do an awful lot. Noticeably, when he is aboard the Death Star he manages to gain control over the station’s computer systems. R2 has the whole place hacked. The simplest (but least dramatic) solution to the Death Star problem would be for R2 to introduce a virus or exploit some other IT vulnerability in the Death Star.

Ideally, once compromised, the Death Star could be set to self-destruct (all spacecraft have self-destruct sequences by the fundamental laws of space-opera). With sufficient notice, the Death Star could be safely evacuated thus minimising loss of life except for the weird monster that lives in the trash compactor.

Speaking of which…I don’t know if there is a way of getting that trash compactor monster to destroy the Death Star but it would be worth having a sub-committee look into it.

Using non-Star Wars technology

I guess a computer virus is not really in keeping with Star Wars, even though there is no way they couldn’t exist in that universe. What other SFF technology could dispose of a Death Star more safely?

  • Nanobots. Get some nanobots on that thing and let them feast on all that tasty, tasty technology. The whole thing gets nibbled to death.
  • Trap it in hyperspace somehow. We don’t see it use hyperspace in a New Hope but it must get around somehow. Trapping the Death Star in another dimension sounds plausible but as we don’t know how hyperspace is supposed to work, this isn’t much of a plan.
  • Use the force. When Alderaan is blown up, the loss of life is felt across the universe as disturbance in the force. Maybe, if they all concentrated really hard when the Death Star appeared, they could have rotated it just a bit so that it missed. With the Death Star rendered tactically useless by the sheer force of will of whole planetary populations not wanting to die, the Empire would be forced to retire the whole project.
  • Teleport the Death Star crew off the station. This requires the Rebellion to have Star Trek teleporters but the Empire not to have protection from Star Trek teleporters.
  • Go back in time and not let Palpatine become Emperor. A more elegant solution than a blaster.

Around about this point I drifted back to sleep.

I don’t know how to make a phaser

Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a decent non-projectile based energy weapon side-arm that is vaguely gun shaped. They might blast, phase, zap, pew-pew, disrupt or disintegrate but they have to give auditory and visual clues that they are operating. A silent and invisible beam of death may work quite effectively in a book but on screen its going to just look weird in battle scene. I can imagine some future small arms manufacturer adding colour beams and sound effects to an energy weapon just because customers are creeped out by an otherwise apparently inanimate gun.

At one level beam weapons are well understood technology. People know how lasers work and the technology of using pulses of high energy particles as a weapon is something that arms manufacturers have been exploring for decades. A hand held version of such devices would be an engineering challenge beyond modern day capability but as a piece of speculative technology it’s not anything like as absurd as an FTL drive.

Even so, the kind of effects shown on movies for such weapons don’t really match what we might expect from real energy weapons. Aside from the noise and the visible pulses, on-screen energy weapons hit people and objects in ways that imply momentum. Han Solo’s blaster will knock back a stormtrooper or cause things to explode like they’ve been punched. Sci-fi weapons inherit the fictional aspects of real weapons (e.g. handguns in movies are often shown as throwing people around more than a bullet impact actually would) and then exaggerate them for reasons due to the aesthetics of battle scenes.

Meanwhile, the Star Trek phaser has to do all that Star Wars blaster does but also act as a cutting tool and have a handy-dandy stun setting. A stun weapon appears to act not unlike an electromagnetic-pulse weapon but on a person’s nervous system. I can see how such a weapon might have varying degrees of impact on a person (including both lethal and hopefully less than lethal settings) but it would be quite different in principle to the kind of energy beam device that the Star Trek phaser is at other times.

The sci-fi generic ray gun is a mix of devices:

  • A force field weapon. It actually makes sense if force fields exist in a sci-fi setting (ignoring how they might work) that the same technology could be weaponised. A narrow force field that projects outwards for a short period and then dissipates would be not just a weapon but a handy power tool. You could make a hammer out of it or maybe a screwdriver…
  • A regular energy beam weapon. Lasers have been around in reality for a long time and can zap energy from one spot to another and burn things. It needn’t be photons – it could be a beam of ionised particles (which might better explain all the light and sound effects, as the particles might cause gases in the air to glow or expand creating noise).
  • Some kind of EMP weapon that somehow (waves hand) effect nervous systems or something. In reality nothing would neatly stun a person without danger of death.

In truth they are all fantasies, controlled by aesthetic and plot considerations– weapons whose effects change to fit circumstance and which can be deadly when the story needs deadly or which can bloodlessly incapacitate somebody when the story needs that.

Not a How To Time Travel

This post sort of follows this, this, and this. I don’t have many impractical suggestions of how to time travel. Let me explain.

Time travel is either easy or impossible. It is easy because essentially time is just another dimension of space-time and travel in the other three dimensions is easy and we are already all travelling in time (just in one direction and locally at the same rate). On the other hand, time travel appears to imply paradoxes. Paradoxes of causality worry me less than issues such as conservation of energy/matter.

Causality worries me less because I suspect cause and effect isn’t everything we might think it is. However, if I disappear from one time period and reappear in the next, then my new time period has more matter in it than it did before and worse, that matter will hang around going forward into the future. Perhaps time travel requires some physical exchange of matter between time periods? If so, then what in the universe is keeping track?

A different issue with time travel is the speed of light. Even approaching (but staying within) the speed of light has some weird temporal consequences. Actual time travel would provide ways of in-effect travelling faster than light and likewise FTL travel also implies a degree of time travel. If the speed of light is a hard unbreakable rule of the universe then it follows that time travel is impossible also.

One method of time travel escapes most of these issues: perception. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House 5, Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time due to the allied bombing of Dresden in World War 2. However, the time travel here is how he perceives events. Billy’s body isn’t popping in and out of time periods, instead, he is experiencing his life out of sequential order. This kind of mental time travel avoids issues of causality on the grounds that everything has already happened. Events are what they are but perhaps the order in which we experience them is an illusion of the human mind.

Unfortunately for stories, there aren’t many writers who can make a narrative work where no decisions can possibly matter. Which takes me to a topic for another time: how should time travel stories work?

How to Ansible

I’ve already looked at how to teleport and how to make an FTL drive and the next step is how to make some kind of space-radio that will allow your reports to Space Command HQ get there in a reasonable time.

Interestingly this takes a bit more thought than the first two. Teleporting doesn’t necessarily require anything to go faster than light, an FTL drive does but also involves some great big hulking machinery to do it. Sure, if you have an FTL drive, you could physically send your hard copy report but that’s not really what we are after with an ansible.

Story-wise, ansible’s are less important to a conventional narrative than an FTL drive. Travelling faster than light allows protagonists to get where they need to be. An ansible, on the other hand, allows people in different places to know what is going on and rather like mobile phones in modern stories, that isn’t always helpful. SF historians please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure the first case of an ansible as a plot device was in Ursula Le Guin’s Rocannon’s World, but even here Le Guin has to separate her protagonist from the device for most of the story. Rocannon is cut off from communication and only after a long and somewhat fantastical quest, can he send a vital message home.

But writers can still make clever use of a setting where FTL communication is possible but FTL travel is impossible, limited or difficult. Orson Scott Card makes clever use of ansible technology in his Ender novels for example. The default for space opera is FTL communication as an after thought and it is often deployed inconsistently with even more vagueness around its limitations or the underlying technology. Star Trek has ‘subspace’ communication whose range and availability seems wholly determined by plot needs.

Unlike the previous two posts, this is a short list. I’ll assume that there could be ways of hacking the entries for teleporting and FTLing to courier messages and worry just about how to make a space CB radio. Duplicate techniques will only be when the same fictional physics could be used to maeke something radio-like rather than a drive for a ship.

  • A new theory of physics. This may take a whole book to come up with, as well as an exile from a shabby anarchist utopia but if you have a principle of simultaneity  in your General Temporal Theory that works along side General Relativity then you’ve cracked ansible technology. Well done Shevek!
  • Quantum Entanglement. Maybe physics already has the answer! The parameters of entagled particles are connected as a whole system. The state of one of a pair of particles relates to the state of another, even when seperated at a great distance. In itself this is not spooky, it souds analogous to tearing a piece of paper in two — the pattern of rips on one piece match the rips on the other. The spooky part is that the parameter in question aren’t determined until somebody measures them because of quantum pixies or something. At that point, the parameters of the entangled particle also become fixed, even if the particle is a long way away. Spooky action at a distance! Unfortunately, even if this effect does somehow propigate faster than light it doesn’t actually seem to be possible to communicate with it.
  • Warp space. “Wait,” I hear you say, “you said you weren’t going to repeat things from the previous lists.” Yes, yes this implies a method for travelling faster than light and I’m assuming this uses the same (probably impossible) technology. However, this time your spaceship is going to stay where it is and use the warp drive to send ripples through space-time that effectively travel faster than light!
  • Tachyons. I’ve also mentioned these hypothetical superluminal particles before. Assuming such things existed and assuming we had some way of interacting with them then maybe you could send a message with them.

That’s all I’ve got!