The really annoying thing about time travel stories

I’ve always wanted to invent a time machine so I could whip back in time to stop Hitler before he did anything evil. Of course there are a couple of problems. First is I’d be joining the back of a LOOONG queue. The other is that our friend Albert Einstein tells us it’s impossible.

But even if a time machine could be built, nobody’s really figured out what it entails. Here’s the deal.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

The Horsehead nebula, Barnard 33, as seen by Hubble. Wonderful, wonderful imagery.

Science fiction is rife with stories about time travel, variously either as social commentary, H. G. Wells style, or as cautionary tales – witness Ray Bradbury’s wonderful A Sound of Thunder. Invent a time machine, go back in time and change the past – and you’d better watch out.

Of course, if things change so you don’t exist, then you can’t have invented the time machine. Which means you didn’t go back in time. Therefore you do exist, so you did invent the time machine and… Yah.

Or there’s Harry Harrison’s hilarious Technicolour Time Machine, about a movie maker who uses a time machine to cut production costs on his period drama by going back to the actual period. What I’m getting at is that there’s a gaping great hole in all of this. And it’s an obvious one.

Suppose you COULD time travel. Suppose you’d built a machine to do it. You decide to whip back twelve hours. And promptly choke to death in the vacuum of deep space.

Nikolai Tesla with some of his gear in action. Public domain, from http://www.sciencebuzz.org/ blog/monument-nearly-forgotten-genius-sought

OK, so it’s not a time machine, but this is what one SHOULD look like. Nikolai Tesla, being spectacular with AC electricity (he’s reading a book, centre left). Public domain, from http://www.sciencebuzz.org/ blog/monument-nearly-forgotten-genius-sought

What gives? The problem is that everything in space is moving. Earth is rotating. Earth also moves around the Sun, which itself is orbiting the galaxy, which itself is moving as part of the Local Group, and so forth. We don’t notice or even think about it because we’re moving with the Earth. If we take Earth as our reference point, it’s fixed relative to us. And that leads us to imagine that  time machines are NOT moving through space – Wells, in particular, was quite explicit that his time machine was fixed and time moved around it.

But actually, a time machine that did this – that stayed ‘still’ relative to Earth would have to move through space, because Earth is moving.

Let’s reverse that for a moment. What say your time machine doesn’t move in space at all. You move back and forth through time, but your absolute spatial position is fixed. Not relative to Earth, but relative to the universe.

You leave your lab and leap back 12 hours. Earth won’t be there – it won’t have arrived. Leap forward 12 hours – same thing, only Earth’s moved away. If you’ve only moved a few seconds, you might find yourself plunging from a great height (aaaargh!). Or buried deep in the Earth (choke).

So for a compelling time-machine story you need to have a machine that not only travels anywhere in time, but also anywhere in space. And, of course, any relative dimensions associated with both. That’s right. A machine that travels anywhere through time and relative dimensions in space.

Heeeeeey, wait a minute

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Selfies with dinosaurs – the angry birds of the chalk era

I managed to take a selfie with ‘real’ dinosaurs the other week, thanks to some clever SFX. Cool. But in other ways it wasn’t too remarkable – because the latest science says these remarkable creatures, who once dominated the earth and whose chief badass was Tyrannosaurus Rex, are still with us today. We call them ‘chickens’, and usually pressure-cook them in secret herbs and spices.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge...but I wouldn't want to meet a hungry one without a Stryker to hand, even so. Click to enlarge.

Alioramus, an early Tyrannosaur. Not huge…but I wouldn’t want to meet a hungry one. Click to enlarge.

That’s right. Birds aren’t ‘descended from’ dinosaurs. They are dinosaurs – specifically, a type of theropod that survived the comet extinction and spread to fill a variety of ecological niches today.

Most of their Cretaceous-era (‘Chalk-era’) relations, such as T-Rex – also a theropod – couldn’t fly. But that didn’t stop most dinosaurs being brightly coloured, feathered (mostly) three-toed, hollow-boned, bipedal egg-layers. Just like birds. And, of course, that means dinosaurs were almost certainly warm-blooded. Like birds. Angry ones. (Go download the app.)

All this was brought home to me a few weeks back when I visited an exhibition about Tyrannosaurs – a long-standing dinosaur family of which T-Rex was one of the last and largest – in Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum. I’ve already posted about the first part of the experience. The other part was the fabulous high-tech special effects that the museum used to bring their subjects to life.

That included some live action green-screen type SFX, fed back to museum-goers on huge screens – like this one. That’s me on the right, being checked out by my new friend Dino. Cool.

I'm on the right - a selfie I took with my SLR, green-screened and slightly foreshortened (uh.... thanks, guys) with some dinosaurs. Cool!

I’m on the right with SLR to my face in this selfie, green-screened and horribly foreshortened (uh…. thanks, guys) with dinosaurs.

I often walk on the Wellington waterfront. Until now, I'd never met dinosaurs on it... More green-screen fun.

I often walk the Wellington waterfront. Plenty of seabirds to see there, but until now, none of their ancient cousins. More live-action SFX fun in the T-Rex exhibition. I was lucky to take the photo – these things were moving. Note the feather coats and bird feet.

Velociraptor mongoliensis reconstruction, apparently life-size, which is bigger than I'd have thought (most of them were about the side of an annoyed turkey).

Velociraptor mongoliensis, apparently life-size, which at approximately 2 metres snout-to-tail is bigger than I’d have thought. Most of them were about the size of an annoyed turkey. Another hand-held ambient-light photo (note movement blur in the guy behind the display).

The whole exhibition, really, wasn’t about T-Rex. It was about what dinosaurs have become for us; symbols of total badass, which stands slightly against the fact that by the Cretaceous era they were actually feathered, bird-like and really pretty fluffy looking, including the ones that would have eaten you.

All this is a complete turn-about from earlier thinking. Victorian-age scientists looked on dinosaurs as slow, stupid, splay-legged, tail-dragging, cold-blooded lizards, doomed to extinction. The word ‘dinosaur’ remains a perjorative today in some circles for this reason. They were wrong, though in point of fact there HAD been large, splay-legged, exothermic animals in the Permian period (299-251 million years ago). There were two main land animal families at the time – the Synapsids (mammal ancestors), which included the fin-backed Pelycosaurs, like Dimetrodon. And there were the Sauropsids (reptile and dinosaur ancestors). Then came a Great Death, bigger than the one that ended the Cretaceous, that killed 90 percent of all life on the planet in less than 100,000 years. The jury’s out on what caused it, though climate change played a part. All the Synapsids died out, with the exception of a few species such as the Cynodonts, now regarded as mammal ancestors.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Reconstruction of Troodon by Iain James Reed. Via Wikipedia, Creative Commons attribution share-alike 3.0 unported license.

Dinosaurs came into their own two ages later, the Jurassic – and flourished particularly in the Cretaceous. By this time they were as far from their reptile ancestors as mammals were. Dinosaurs were feathered not for flight, but for display and insulation. They laid eggs in nests. They had hollow (pneumatised) bones. They fell into two types; Orthinischians (bird-hipped), which included the big quadrupedal herbivores; and Saurischichians, lizard-hipped dinosaurs which included the theropods and – paradoxically – therefore birds. Indeed, some of the Cretaceous theropods, like the various species of Troodon, were originally classified as early birds, which they weren’t. But only birds survived the K-T extinction event, 65 million years ago, apparently because they were small.

Did smarts play a part for dinosaurs? Apparently not. They were relentlessly tiny-brained. And the fact that dinosaurs flourished for tens of millions of years, out-stripping the mammals of the day, suggests that – despite our own conceits – intelligence wasn’t required for a survival advantage. But it’s possible they were smarter than we think. Their surviving cousins, today, offer insight. Crows are as pea-brained as all birds. Yet they can solve complex logic puzzles. So maybe dinosaurs had a different sort of intelligence from us.

More on that soon. But for now I’ll leave you with a final look at one of the biggest predators of the dino-era – the magnificent T-Rex, as seen in all good museums… especially one near me, just now. A feathered, hollow-boned, six-tonne carnivore with bird-feet, jaws with the strength of a hydraulic ram – 3000 kg worth of bite – driving home 15-cm long teeth. Speaks for itself, really.

The real thing - Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards, in all his glory. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

The real thing – Tyrannosaurus Rex, King of the Tyrant Lizards. Another ambient light, hand-held photo of mine.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Kids books that have totally stuck with you

When you were a kid, did you ever find a book that, to this day, hasn’t gone away – that you could maybe read, years and years later, and still enjoy?

Here’s my list, all books I read up to the age of about 11-12. I’m not limiting it to a ‘top 10’ – in fact, some of the entries cover whole series of books. Justifiably.

  1. Arthur Ransome – the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ series
  2. C S Lewis – the ‘Narnia’ series
  3. Robert A. Heinlein – all his ‘juveniles’ (Farmer in the Sky, The Rolling Stones, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, etc).
  4. Madeleine L’Engle – A Wrinkle In Time
  5. Tove Jansson – Finn Family Moomintroll
  6. J R R Tolkien – The Hobbit
  7. J R R Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings
  8. Nicholas Fisk – Space Hostages
  9. Norman Hunter – the whole Professor Branestawm series (my copies of the first three were autographed by the author himself, who came to my parents’ house in 1970).
  10. Arthur C. Clarke – Islands in the Sky (my main entree to Clarke, a YA-pitched showcase for his comsat future, and the first appearance of the ‘broomstick’ he also used 50 years later in 2010: Odyssey Two).
  11. Andre Norton – Plague Ship.

Care to share your list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Is high-tech REALLY indistinguishable from magic?

A fellow blogger asked for help the other week. What was the specific source – by page reference – to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘Third Law’?

It was first published in his book Profiles of the Future – which was variously issued from 1958. My edition is the revised version published by Pan Books of London in 1973. And on p. 39 of that edition, as a footnote, Clarke outlines the Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’.

It was a throw-away point in a footnote to a lengthy chapter discussing the way conservative twentieth century science usually fails to admit to progress.

Fair point in that context, but I couldn’t help thinking of Europe’s history of exploration around the globe, which was built around wowing locals with techno-trickery and then bashing them with it. Toledo steel was one of several ways in which Hernan Cortez and subsequent marauders knocked over South and Middle American kingdoms in the sixteenth century.

It was a disparity that became extreme as Europe’s technical base improved, leading – ultimately – to the appalling massacre in 1893 of spear-wielding Matabele warriors by a handful of Cecil Rhodes’ Maxim gunners.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/ the Maxim Gun/ and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in wake of the battle.

The conceit of the age – echoed in Clarke’s Law – was that the indigenous peoples who saw European technology looked on it as magic. And it’s true to the extent that, if we lack any concept of the principle behind something, it may as well be magic. The notion of TV, for instance, was absolutely magical before the discovery of electromagnetic transmission; and even a top scientist from (let’s say) the late seventeenth century would have little chance of comprehending one, if they saw it. But I bet that if the principle was explained, they’d soon realise it wasn’t magic at all – just following a principle not yet known.

The same’s true, I think, of the way Europe’s technology was received across the world as it spread during their age of expansion. I think that sometimes the words of magic were used by indigenous peoples seeing the British demonstrate – usually – firearms. But that didn’t betray lack of understanding of the foreign technical concepts. The actual problem was they didn’t initially have the wording. The best evidence I have for this is in the collision between industrialising Britain and Maori in New Zealand, during the early nineteenth century.

Maori picked up British industrial products very quickly from the 1810s, including armaments. These were acculturated – drawn into Maori systems of tikanga (culture), in part by co-opting words already in use. The musket became the ‘pu’, for instance – a word for a blowpipe. But Maori very well understood the principles – certainly going out of their way to learn about armaments and warfare. Some rangatira (chiefs) even made the journey to London to learn more, among them Hongi Hika, who visited the arsenal at Woolwich in 1821 and learned of musket-age warfare and defences; and Te Rauparaha, who was taught about trench warfare in Sydney in 1830.

For ‘contact-age’ Maori, British industrial technology was not ‘magic’ at all – it was something to be investigated, understood and co-opted for use in New Zealand. And I suspect that’s how the same technology was also received by indigenous peoples elsewhere.

I don’t know whether Clarke thought of it that way; I suspect his targets, more particularly, were fuddy-duddies in his own establishment who wouldn’t accept that there might be new scientific principles.

Is there a technology you regard as potentially ‘magical’ to others?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Star Trek lessons – writing out of the box

I’ve long thought most of the Star Trek franchise series and movies – the ones made between 1977 and 2005 – to be epic fails both as good SF and, more to the point, as good dramatic story-telling.

Sounds heretical, and I suppose I’ll get heat from fans – but if you step back to the first principles of writing, it’s true. I’ve just finished reading a book by Brian Robb, Star Trek: The essential history of the classic TV series and movies, which confirms my belief.

Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.
Eta Carinae. NASA, public domain. Click to enlarge.

I’m not complaining about the fact that Trek aliens all looked like humans with lobsters glued to their foreheads or that Klingon was apparently constructed to be different rather than linguistic by the usual measures. My problem goes deeper than that.

Robb argued that the best ideas of the original 1966-69 series – the things fans regard as canonical – weren’t created by Gene Roddenberry. But he had huge influence and one major legacy was a set of rules about what could and could not happen. Writers called it the ‘Roddenberry Box’.

This defined Roddenberry’s vision – a future that had conquered prejudice, where inter-personal conflict was a thing of the past. A wonderful ideal. One we should aspire to. The problem was that when it came to story-telling, the Box was boring. A lot of the challenge for writers was getting around the limits while producing interesting tales.

To my mind that worked in the original series, particularly where the show was run as a light comedy – think Trouble With Tribbles. Wonderful. Why did it work? Because Roddenberry hired great writers – top-line SF authors among them – to work up plots revolving around three great characters, Spock, Kirk and McCoy.

'That's no moon'. Wait - yes it is. It's Mimas, orbiting Saturn.

‘That’s no moon’. Oops – wrong franchise. Actually, this is Mimas, orbiting Saturn. NASA, public domain

The problem – well explored by Ross, but which I’d long thought true – is that the show was captured by a fan base for whom the Box defined canon. To me the rot set in with The New Generation, which mashed New Age thinking and a lot of meaningless techno-babble with the Box and – to me – never captured the sense of wonder of the original. It was pretentious, laboured, ponderous, and fast descended to reverent posturing by one-dimensional characters – stories defined not by what made a good story, but by what was needed to satisfy a fan base.

I gave up watching it, and never bothered with Deep Space Nine or Voyager. I gave up on the movies. Later I caught a few episodes of Enterprise, which wasn’t too bad but which still dribbled, as far as I was concerned. According to Robb, the producers were actively writing, by then, for fans – missing a wider audience or new fans. Certainly, these grotesque going-through-the-motions exercises in franchise fodder didn’t appeal to casual Trek enthusiasts, like me.

For me, Trek didn’t come right until the 2009 J J Abrams movie, a complete re-boot which decisively broke the Box. It was Trek as it should be, re-cast for the twenty-first century. Wonderful stuff.

The fact that it featured Karl Urban – a Kiwi actor from my city, Wellington, was a particular plus.

The take-home lesson for writers? Idealism is wonderful. There is no faulting Roddenberry’s optimistic vision. But to make interesting stories, that idealism has to be given a dynamic. The fact is that human realities, including conflict, have been omnipresent through history, and it’s unlikely that a few hundred years will change them. But that doesn’t stop us trying; and it seems to me that stories built around the attempt would be far more interesting than stories exploring the success of meeting this hardest of all human challenges.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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Swearing and cussing? Sirrah! It’s a lot of craven murrain

The other week the Prime Minister of New Zealand used a word in public that literally means the ordure of a male cow. The colloquial meaning the PM deployed it for was ‘rubbish’.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Thou dankish unchin-snouted malt-worm!’ William Shakespeare, the ‘Flower’ portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Oooh, naughty. Or is it? Way back in 1970, the same word was publicly used by Germaine Greer when she visited New Zealand. Then, police issued an arrest warrant. This time? The PM is in the middle of an election campaign in which everything he says or does will win or lose voters – and nobody batted an eye.

But of course. In New Zealand, today’s generation don’t regard this term as particularly offensive. I’ve seen the same word used in book titles, in the US it was the title of a Penn and Teller series, and so on. But that’s swearing. Words come and go. If they didn’t, we’d all swear like that impious swiver, Will Shakespeare.  Zounds! (God’s Wounds). The big word of his day was fie. But wait, there’s more. Not satisfied with the general vocabulary – which included some of the Anglo Saxon we use – the immortal bard is usually credited with coining around 1700 new words, many of them boisterously intended. You can check some of them out for yourself – here’s a Shakespeare insult generator.

What changes is the degree of offence society considers the word causes to ‘polite’ ears. That’s how Benjamin Tabart was able to use Shakespeare’s vilest word in his 1807 childrens’ tale ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’. Of course, by that time the hot potato word was ‘damn’, so offensive in polite society it was soon censored to d—d. That became a swear word too – ‘dashed’.

As always, older swear words that now seem acceptable aren’t directed ‘at’ anything. They’re abstract intensifiers that have lost connection with their original meaning. That’s different from offensive words intended to demean others’ behaviours, beliefs or cultures, which never become acceptable, any time. The fact that new terms of this latter kind keep turning up says quite a bit about the unpleasant side of the human condition.

But abstract intensifiers, directed at revealing one’s response to an ordinary event – like stepping in dog poo – are something else, and the funny thing is that any word will do, providing it’s understood. Sci-fi authors coin new ones often as devices for reinforcing the difference between ours and their future society. In Battlestar Galactica (2003-2009) the word was ‘frack’. An obvious homophone, but it worked well anyway. Or there’s Larry Niven’s Ringworld-series ‘futz’, which to me sounded like a mashup with putz. But you can’t fault the logic – the ‘different but not TOO different’ principle demanded of accessible SF.

I’ve only seen one place where a different word emerged. It was in Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero. The forbidden term, the deeply offensive word of his galactic future, repeatedly used by his ‘starship troopers’? Bowb. It echoed 1930s slang, but Harrison made it the verboten word and used it with stunning effect – a multi-purpose obscene noun, verb and adjective with which readers instantly identified because of the context. ‘What’s this, bowb your buddy week?’ a trooper demands as his power suit fails and nobody stops him drowning. ‘It’s always bowb your buddy week’, the gunnery corporal tells the troops as the man sinks.

Bowb. Conveying the intensity of personal emotional response to the abstract without the current-day offence.  And that, of course, is the essence of writing – transmitting the intended emotion to the reader. Way cleverer than using existing swear words.

Trouble is, when I use bowb  in conversations, people look at me funny and think I’m a gleeking, beef-witted dewberry.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

Three rules for naming your fantasy world

In my mis-spent early twenties, a friend and I created a fantasy world map for our RPG sessions.

I had to share this pic, taken by She Who Must Be Obeyed. We end up in some interesting places, sometimes. Just in case anybody googles "Stockton Mine".

To build a world, start by wearing a hard hat (like mine).

Yes, I played Dungeons and Dragons – and later a game we invented ourselves to get around the sillier D&D ideas. The world was designed around what we might call the ‘rule of funny’, with place names made up mostly of bad puns and motorcycle parts manufacturers. This meant we had waters such as the Greg Lake, next door to rolling hills such as the Sinfields. And there was the Hergest Ridge – though we didn’t have the Old Fields. We also riffed on Tolkien’s unfortunate habit of ending place names with ‘-dor’. You know… Backdor. Frontdor. Dianador. Groan.

That does raise a point for those of us engaged in (more serious) fantasy world-building. Place names gotta be credible. Tolkien, inevitably, set the gold standard – he started by creating languages, and it flowed from there. I figure there are three principles.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with friends, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

Part of the fantasy world map I devised, with a friend, for our RPG. This is the bit I managed to digitise.

1. Be consistent.
Nothing spoils a (serious) fantasy map more than place names that don’t match up. You wouldn’t want R’rrug K’thach A’aaag next door to Kibblethwaite on the Marsh.  In reality, place names reflect the language they’re from – often with infusions that flow from earlier history. One group of invaders might co-opt an existing name into their language. Or it might be shortened over time. Londinium, for example, becoming London.

2. Name things twice.
That same phenomenon in (1) usually means new people give a landscape their own names. It happened in New Zealand where British settlers of the early nineteenth century persistently re-named places to suit themselves. That’s true of the world generally. Fantasy worlds need to reflect it too. Tolkien nailed it – he had three or four names for most of his places. So naming things twice or more helps add depth and credibility to any fantasy world. The process is inter-related with the history of the world you’re creating.

3. Many place-names are mundane.
Here in New Zealand we have many place names in Te Reo Maori, but if you translate them, the majority are descriptions of events, or a literal description of the place. Puketapu (‘Sacred Hill’) is common. All trumped by Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu’ (‘The place where the great mountain-slider and land-swallower Tamatea, he of the very large knees, played his flute to his loved one’). It’s one of the longest place names in the world.

This is true elsewhere, too – if you check Europe, for instance, you’ll find a lot of ordinary names, in original language. ‘Brighthelmet’s Town’ (Brighton) and ‘New Town’ (Naples) among them. Here’s a website that lists ‘em.

Needless to say, Tolkien – once again – nailed it. I suppose the lesson, really, is ‘follow Tolkien’s lead, in your own way, and you won’t go far wrong’.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

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