OMG – the baddest sci-fi mega-mech…e-v-a-h!

I posted last week about why huge bipedal fighting ‘mechs’ from sci-fi like Pacific Rim are unlikely, unless the laws of physics change.

Copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2004, 2012

An Airfix kit I made of a Mk IV tank – battlefield mech, 1917 era.

But that doesn’t mean sci-fi mechs have to be boring. Not at all.

More in a moment. First off – what’s wrong with a 120-metre x 20-metre biped mega-mech?  Alas, even if you could get your mech to move, it’s a 2400 square metre target balancing on pivot points wa-a-a-ay below its centre of gravity. There are reasons why soldiers don’t stand tall and walk very, very slowly towards the enemy. When it was tried, on the Somme in 1916, the British Army suffered its heaviest one-day losses – ever.

The same’s true of real mechs – main battle tanks. In the First World War, infantry tanks were high-sided. The fact that height made them targets was understood, But the design committee couldn’t compromise on the height of the tracks, because the criteria was for a vehicle able to drive over trenches – dictating a rhomboidal profile equivalent to a 20-metre diameter wheel.

My 'Dragon' model of M. I. Koshkin's T-34. Lighting rig was improvised.

A ‘Dragon’ model of M. I. Koshkin’s T-34. Sits on the shelf beside my writing desk, usually. Lighting rig was improvised.

Inter-war tanks had different criteria but were still high-sided. Then, during the Second World War, sloped armour – again, well known in naval circles – was applied by Mikhail Ilyich Koshkin to his T-34. Modern tanks follow that lead. Tank tactics reflect ‘low is better’ too – a commander looks for places to go hull-down. You can’t do that in a 120-metre high bipedal mech.

So does this mean mech sci-fi has to be dull? Not at all. I’m thinking of the most awesome mech I’ve ever seen in SF – Stanislaw Lem’s Cyclops. Total badass. To one reader, ‘goddamn dynamite, I mean, like whoa.

Best MBT in the world - the Challenger 2. Well, it's British, innit. "It's only a model". "Shh"

Best MBT in the world – the Challenger 2. “Eeee, lad, that’s ‘cos it’s British, innit.” “It’s only a model”. “Shh”. Note the background …the same as the T-34′s.

Get this. Lem’s Cyclops is an autonomous robot weighing 80 tons, 25 feet high, levitated on force fields, protected by ceramic armour and energy fields, with near-inexhaustible energy reserves. It’s armed with an antimatter cannon capable of continuous fire in all directions – annihilating everything in a constant nuclear-yield detonation, soaking the battlefield in relativistic-scale energies and lethally hard radiation.

Here’s Alex Andreev’s visual concept.

It’s from Stanislaw Lem’s The Invincible (1964)I read that novel in 1978 and – setting aside Wendayne Ackerman’s peculiar translation from Polish, via German – it’s total OMG.  Mech-machine evolution…versus humans. And Lem also envisaged the ultimate end; a robot fly (‘grey goo‘). Tiny, individually disposable, always replaceable – available in multi-billions – and able to connect into swarms that were …invincible. Blasting them was like fighting the ocean with swords. The logic pivoted on energy consumption.

That was the ultimate sci-fi mega mech. Infintesimally tiny – yet, vastly huge. Expendable, yet indestructible. Brilliant. But then, Lem’s stuff always is. Here’s part of the sequence where the Cyclops goes into combat with the flies. Lem is one hell of an author! Don’t just take my word for it.  Find a copy of that book and read it – because, my friends, Stanislaw Lem has shown us how mechs are done.

And – more importantly – how we’ll relate to them.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Next week: My review of Gravity. Before then - NaNo writing tips and advice. Watch this space.

Inspirations: steampunking with Dr Grordbort

One of the benefits of living in Wellington, New Zealand, is that I share a city with the talented folks at Weta. One of whom, Greg Broadmore, has made a splash lately with his steampunk-themed stories of early twentieth century male idiocy, ray guns and – uh – other ray guns.

Inspirations LogoThere’s something fundamentally cool about steampunk. Cool stylings. Cool nostalgia for a ‘future past’ that never was. The sense of optimistic hope. And Broadmore’s world has more. It’s a homage to the golden age of science fiction – not just the ray guns, but the hostile Mars, the murderous robots, and the ravening jungle-Venus of Stanley Weinbaum in particular. He also skewers the late nineteenth century world of pipe-smoking, topee-hatted English military adventurers with a predeliction for brandy, whose rah-rah ‘boys own’ mentality led to such embarrassments as the Battle of the Shangani River (1893), when 50 British mercenaries with 4 maxim guns slaughtered 1500 Matabele warriors armed with spears – an appalling moment that shocked period sensibilities. ‘Whatever happens, we have got the Maxim gun…and they have not’, Hilaire Belloc intoned a little later in The Modern Traveller (1898).

Last week I went with a couple of friends – one we shall call Mentis Fugit, the other a professional artist who we shall call Ars Gratia Artis, to an exhibition of Broadmore’s original artwork and some of the artefacts – including the Moon Maiden diorama – in the central city.

The Pomson 6000. Photo: Mentis Fugit.

The Pomson 6000. Photo: Mentis Fugit.

The ray guns have been around a while. I haven ‘t bought one  – if I’m going to spend $1000 on a ray gun, I want it to work. But this was a chance to see the originals. There were dozens of paintings, somefamiliar, others not, with ray guns on plinths, dioramas and large-scale statues.

Photo: Mentis Fugit

Photo: Mentis Fugit

It was pretty impressive. Broadmore has a lot of talent, a lot of imagination, and a particularly brilliant sense of humour. A pretty inspiring event all up. One, in fact, that inspired us to have a conversation that almost, but didn’t exactly, sound like this:

Ars G:  He did them in Photoshop.
Me: How can you tell, old bean?
Ars G: You just can, that’s all. They’re Giclee prints. Very expensive to make, they are. Looks like he’s custom made the frames, too.

Photo: Mentis Fugit

Photo: Mentis Fugit

Mentis: I say, isn’t that the Pomson 6000? Jolly good ray gun, by Jove.
Me: Ray gun? Great Scott – you mean the kind of weapon that turns the target into a petrol attendant named Ray?
Ars G: It’s only a model.
Me: Ssssh!
Ars G: It is! It’s just got bits stuck on. Nice weathering. But ray guns don’t work anyway.
Mentis: They did once, old fellow. I say, back then, science worked in big strokes. Now it’s molecule, molecule, molecule.
Me: By Jove, cast your peepers over there chaps, that’s rather spiffing, the Moon Maiden looks just like Liv Tyler.
Mentis: Rather, old boy.
Ars G: Do you really want to be photographed here?
Me: Bit of a ripping wheeze, by jove! Looks like bally jerry copped a spot of flak sausage-side.

Photo: Mentis Fugit

Photo: Mentis Fugit

Mentis: Look here, Bigglesworth, I can’t quite follow your banter there.
Me: Oh, can’t you? Sorry Algy. Banter’s a bit off today.
Mentis: I say, rather it is, old chap, I really would get that banter checked out if I were you.
Me: Is all this stuff for sale?
Mentis: Looks like it.
Ars G: I think I’ll pick up a catalogue.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

What are the top SF short stories of all time?

Is there a sci-fi short story that really hit you? Something that struck a chord? Short stories are different from novels – they’re a snapshot of a character incident, usually punchy, usually with a twist line at the end.

I tend not to agree with ‘best of’ lists; everything has its merits and a lot rests on the way the story is received by the reader; one person’s gem might be another’s rubbish. But here are a few that impressed me – there are more, of course. Murray Leinster’s The Aliens;  Asimov’s Nightfall. John Campbell’s haunting Who Goes There. The list also includes just about everything Arthur C. Clarke ever wrote. Anyhow:

Arthur Porges – The Ruum (1953)
A dramatic exploration of the psychology of being hunted and of the survival instinct; one man in the Canadian wilds tries to stay alive in the face of a remorseless alien machine.

Cyril M. Kornbluth - The Marching Morons (1951)
A biting satire on post-WW2 American values and the way power corrupts individuals. Still strikes chords today.

Arthur C. Clarke – The Nine Billion Names Of God (1953)
Still the best ever last line of any short story, ever – SF or otherwise.

Isaac Asimov – The Last Question (1956)
Vies with Clarke for best last line; and a provocative take on religion.

Paul Ernst – Nothing Ever Happens On The Moon (1939)
At a time when a lot of SF tended to veer towards spectacle, this tale explored the psychology of isolation.

All of them were old-ish when I first read them – yet they remain timeless. Why? Because each, in their own way, has captured some aspect of the human condition – which remains true for us today.

Has anyone else read these? What do you think of them? And – more to the point – what’s your pick? Do share!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: where’s my Star Trek transporter?

I always enjoy the original Star Trek, mainly because it was really funny – Kirk and McCoy especially. Spock was the straight man in the comedy trio.

I made this picture with Celestia. You never see the model from this angle or with this lighting in the original series.

It was pretty futuristic with hand-held phones, transporters, warp drive, deflector shields. And a lot of it came true…er…a bit. So is this a good model (no pun intended) for credible sci-fi world-building? Uh… let’s see…

1. Auto-sliding doors
On the original Enterprise, stage-hands whipped them open and foley artists patched in the sound of guillotined paper.  Today we have auto-doors which, at least for me, close as I approach.

2. Flip-lid communicators.
Kirk’s communicator wasn’t a cellphone. It was a hand-held radio that could contact Enterprise on the other side of the planet. Lots of broadcast power. Battery pack must have been off-camera. Hope they didn’t use microwave frequencies. And don’t forget that the guy who first wrote of cellphones was Robert A. Heinlein (Space Cadet, 1947).

3. Medical monitoring beds
Hospitals today use medical beds with machines that go ‘ping’, like Trek, but don’t forget that the guy who invented this idea was Robert A. Heinlein (Have Spacesuit – Will Travel, 1958).

4. Wireless headsets
Bluetooth, though Trek didn’t call them that. Is your battery flat? Mine is.

In reality Trek offered the usual sci-fi trope of cool gizmos based on what was possible in the 1960s, coupled with ‘plot device’ engineering (like warp drive and transporters) that was known to be impossible even then. The more crucial innovation was Roddenberry’s social vision; an almost utopian integration. An ideal which it would be great to achieve, and we can’t ever fault his optimism in that sense.

But Roddenberry and the writers of Star Trek, just like everybody else of that era except Arthur C. Clarke, failed to predict the real change that was coming – or its social consequences. I’m talking about the internet, remote working, social networking. Defined by the capability to communicate with anybody – or any database – from anywhere. Clarke knew. He absolutely nailed it in detail - here’s a clip from 1974. Watch it with awe. He also predicted the salacious consequence of ubiquitous worldwide communication - in 1963.

As for the coolest Trek tech? Won’t happen any time soon. Or ever:

5. Transporter
Introduced to save on special effects – they didn’t have to show the landing. Unfortunately. tearing somebody into sub-atomic particles and reassembling them at the other end is impossible, because we can’t tell exactly where the particle is.Heisenberg proved it via a (possibly) dead cat, a generation before Trek. And if something went wrong, you wouldn’t be split into good and bad characters like Kirk in Mirror, Mirror. You’d end up unlike anything on Earth. Or Mars.

6. Warp drive
Hand-waving away Einstein’s speed limit. Only one problem. You canna change the laws of physics. That’s why the OPERA neutrino experimenters resigned after the loose cable speed calculation botch up. Einstein was right. Sorry. Get over it. The writer who first tackled relativistic star travel properly was Robert A. Heinlein (Time for the Stars, 1956).

7. Deflector shields
Magnetic fields trap electromagnetic energy – Earth’s does, hence the Van Allen belts. Takes the Earth to do it. Just how powerful are the Enterprise’s engines anyway?

8. Alien women with green skin who get the hots for Kirk
The chance that aliens will look like attractive human women wearing green grease-paint is so close to zero it may as well be zero.  (‘Aaaargh, Earthman Kirk, you are loathesomely bipedal and your lack of tentacles makes me sick with revulsion.’) As for Vulcans being inter-fertile with humans? We’re more likely to be inter-fertile with daisies.  I know it got ret-conned. I hate ret-conning. I bet the first aliens we discover will be algae analogues.

9.  Phasers
Beam weapons that vapourise guys in red shirts in half a second aren’t going to be hand-held. Water (which is what people largely are) takes a LOT of energy to heat. You need wads of energy just to replicate the effects of a common or garden bullet. (“This is my ‘L.A.S.E.R.’ And this is the 18-wheeler with the battery”) Don’t forget transfer losses (the gun gets red hot) and back-scatter (hop in, the radiation’s lovely). A E Van Vogt pointed that last out as early as 1939 in his story ‘Discord in Scarlet’. And the guy who first pointed out the power pack issue was Robert A. Heinlein (Tunnel in the Sky, 1955), a novel which, incidentally, ‘did’ Stargate – half a century earlier.

Anybody have anything to add to the list?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: card characters for novelists

Ever been stuck sorting out characters for your story? Especially secondary characters that you can’t put too much time into but which still need that realistic edge. Today I thought I’d share an ideas trick that might work for you. A card game.

That’s right. A card game. Alice in Wonderland style, slightly. Here’s how. Make a set of (say) 20 blank pieces of card or paper. Not too large. Write down a coherent list of names, characteristics, actions and so forth, one per card. Ssort the cards into topics, one pile per topic. Shuffle – not really necessary, but we’re playing cards here. Lay them out, face up and find the character names. Set them out in a row. Then add a physical description and one or more action cards beneath each. Mix them around a bit.

Now have a look at what you’ve come up with.  Naturally a random fit like this will produce some pretty weird combinations. But it isn’t a ‘character generator’ The aim is to provoke – get you thinking.

Let’s say you have Roger the Shrubber, whose characteristic is ‘introverted and cautious’, but who gets an action ‘wild partying’. OK. Why? Can you think of a reason? Yes? Great. Write it down. No? OK, shuffle again. What now? Keep doing it. Add cards if ideas float in. See what comes up. Write down the new thoughts on a separate piece of paper if you need to.

This is a creation-provocation exercise – a start-point, not an end point. You won’t get final characters ouf of this, or even characters of any depth, particularly. But these may not be your main characters; these could be a secondary individual who needs some kind of feature to set them apart. Or maybe this exercise kicks up something brilliant that can turn into a major character. Certainly, with luck, the card-shuffle will get you thinking. It’s designed to create a framework – to provoke ideas, to be flexible along the way. Later, all that has to be fleshed out via donkey-work. But you have to start somewhere.

Do you have any character-creation systems you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Worldbuilding: the shimmering refulgence of dieselpunk

A fair number of writers can be said to be ‘world-builders’. Few, though, can also be said to have built an entire genre – the one Star Wars was homage to. Space opera. The man who did it was Edward Elmer Smith, PhD – E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith to his fans. His family called him Ted.

Smith gained his PhD at a time when few people had more than a bachelors’ degree. His day job was in food chemistry for the Dawn Doughnut Company – but by night he was a writer of colossal imagination who basically invented the genre of space opera. As I pointed out in the last post, Smith could not match his creativity with styling skill, but I think he knew it – and that doesn’t diminish his contribution to twentieth century story-telling and pop-culture, which was simply huge.

Put it this way; without Smith, there would probably not have been a Star Wars. His stories began appearing in pulp SF magazines in the 1920s, starting with The Skylark of Space, which he started writing around 1916. They were astonishing tales filled with awesome super-science, framed by a consciously written backdrop of cardboard cliché characters, ridiculous plots, and logarithmic scales of action that expanded to epic proportions with each new story. He was not called ‘Galaxy Smasher’ Smith for nothing.

Smith’s Skylark series gave way to the classic ‘Lensman’ series that made his name synonymous with the genre. Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers were homages to it. So was Star Wars – the movie that mainstreamed the genre. So when you watch the adventures of Messrs Skywalker, Oobie Doobie Benoobi, and the rest, don’t forget – Smith did it first.

My favourite was always Smith’s 1930 novel Spacehounds of IPC, originally published in Amazing Stories. It was an attempt at a new series, terminated after the first novel-length sequence on the back of fan dislike of its solar system setting. A pity. Smith was determined to make it ‘scientific’, insofar as was known in the 1930s, a step up from the science whimsy of the Skylark stories. Today we might call it ‘dieselpunk’ or perhaps ‘decopunk’– the future of the 1930s, filled with scientists in white coats, their thick X-ray goggles pushed up on their foreheads, a world of copper-coloured streamline moderne.

Spacehounds itself is quintessential Smith, a romance of hopeful 1930-era science in which the solar system is filled with habitable worlds – even Jupiter, which Smith imagined split between good and evil races of super-scientists living on opposite poles. Into this crash the peoples of the inner solar system, starting with the action hero he-man scientist ‘Steve’ Stevens who is cast away on an Earth-like Ganymede in a fragment of a spaceship with his girlfriend Nadia. To save her (this is 1930, remember), Stevens has to engineer a high-tech rescue from scratch, while she keeps house (see what I mean). Which means cutting wood to smelt steel to build a water race to drive a hydro plant so he can get power for a radio, to make which he needs a transmission valve that he has to build by first finding sand and making glass and – and – you get the picture.

Along the way Stevens and Nadia end up on Titan (don’t ask) where they make friends with the Titanians, who are fighting a relentless war against the evil Sedlor.  They are made a present of Titanian space torpedoes with pentavalent nitrogen warheads (a grossly unstable structure that degrades with significant energy release, as in a mildly sub-nuclear explosion). The whole novel finishes in a typical Smithian uber-battle between the Jovian super-scientists, filled with his hallmark ravening rays.

Cheesy? Absolutely. The slang was execrable, the writing style not so much purple as ultraviolet, the dialogue wooden. But make no mistake: Smith knew what he was doing. Highlights? He used ‘computer’ in its original sense - meaning ‘somebody who does computations’, as in Stevens. Robert Heinlein reputedly had Smith on about the plot, particularly Stevens’ apparent ability to rebuild Earth super-science from stone-age cast-away tech. Smith insisted that he himself could do everything he’d attributed to his character. And that was possibly true. Smith was a smart engineer – and he enviegled hard science into his work along the way.  The spacesuits he described in Spacehounds had been well thought through in the practical sense of protecting humans from vacuum. Men and women also needed the same gear – something not obvious from some of the science fiction art of the era.

Smith also portrayed his ‘rays;’ at least in Spacehounds, as something close to what was known about electromagnetics - meaning that it involved frequencies and energies. The real ‘war of the rays’ took place just a decade after Spacehounds, of course, when the British not only used radar to help win the battle of Britain, but also deployed the BBC’s first TV transmitter to upset Luftwaffe navigational radio signals (‘beams’).

I think Smith knew his stories stretched credulity with their absurd plots and characters. Spacehounds was tongue in cheek in many respects, and in some ways it seems Smith was playing up to it. But why not? Smith drew pleasure from writing it, and he knew his audience drew pleasure from reading it. He was a very, very smart guy. Back then, America was sliding into depression; the midwest was drying out, people were getting hungry. His stories, for a few brief hours, let readers enjoy something other than the gruelling realities of their everyday existence. A welcome escape from hardship - back in that golden age of wireless, ravening rays, and brass bikinis.

Have you read any of Smith’s books? What did you think of them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012

Hemingway’s writing rules and art deco

It was Ernest Hemingway, I think, who thrust modern writing upon the twentieth century. His words were unadorned prose, stripped of its adjectives. Plain, straight-forward language that drew the reader closer to the gritty reality of the human condition that he was exploring.

He wrote the shortest and most poignant story I’ve ever read. “For sale: baby shoes, never used.” His writing rules, which he was given as a junior reporter at the Kansas City Star, were:

1. Write short sentences.
2. Use short first paragraphs
3. Use vigorous English
4. Be positive, not negative

I’ll post my own take on them shortly. The point today is that Hemingway didn’t make them up. But he did apply them – along with the principle that he wrote 91 pages of rubbish for every page of masterpiece. Writers worldwide followed in his footsteps – in America, everyone from Steinbeck to Heinlein to Kerouac. Together they set the pattern for the literary styles of the mid-to-late twentieth century. They gave us the antithesis of the adjectival prose that had been the accepted style of the nineteenth century. The writing equivalent of streamline moderne - stripped back yet asethetically stylish, functional yet also artistic.

But that didn’t kill Victorian florid. One of the masters of it was Edward Elmer Smith, a contemporary of Hemingway. They were opposites: Hemingway the art-writer, Hemingway the novelist, the man who penetrated to the heart of human condition and its gritty, difficult realities. The man who did it in a few words with razor-like precision. Smith couldn’t really write and knew it – he sent himself up, consciously, in some of his later books. He was a very smart guy; an engineer, and he invented a whole new genre – space opera. This became synonymous with science fiction and was mainstreamed in 1977 when Star Wars burst into popular imagination. (Yes, Star Wars is pure ‘space opera’,)

Smith’s style was the antithesis of Hemingway. Try these lines from Spacehounds of IPC, a space opera of 1930 filled with ravening rays and refulgent force fields:

“Upon the outer ray-screen, flaming white into incandescent defense, the furious bolt spent itself, and in the instant of the launching of the searing blade of flame, Brandon had gone into action. Switch after switch drove home, and one after another those frightful fields of force, those products of the mightiest minds of three planets, were hurled out against the tiny Jovian sphere. Driven as they were by the millions upon millions of horsepower stored in the accumulators of the Sirius they formed a coruscating spherical shell of intolerable energy all around the enemy vessel, but even their prodigious force was held at bay by the powerful defensive screens of the smaller space-ship.”
- E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith, Spacehounds of IPC, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/20857/pg20857.txt

Ouch. You can read the whole book online here. In point of fact, it’s not just space opera, today we also classify it ‘dieselpunk’ or ‘decopunk’ - the art deco equivalent of steampunk. Think Flash Gordon. I’ll detail more about ‘dieselpunk’ tomorrow – it’s worth a post.

So where Hemingway and the others made modernism/deco/streamline a feature of their writing style and approach to their books, Smith made it his story setting. But his actual writing style couldn’t be called that for a second. His words have a kind of eager teenage feel, telling not showing, amateurish, wordy, passive. Sometimes held up as the epitome of purple. Probably wouldn’t be touched by any publishing house today. Actually, it wasn’t back then – Smith published initially with the pulp SF magazines, named after the low-grade paper they used rather than their content. But the writing was pulpy too. Rates were typically a cent a word, which weren’t great even by 1930s standards.

We can thank Hemingway and his art-writing contemporaries for the transformation. Certainly ‘plain’ is the style I prefer to use myself – as I’ve said before, I rather like the Asimov angle, which is even more plain-vanilla.

Still, one of my ambitions as a writer has been to try and get the word ‘refulgent’ into one of my books. Smith’s two uses in Spacehounds were: ‘Above them, and to their right, Saturn shone refulgently, his spectacular rings plainly visible.’ And: ‘…from the bright liquid of the girdling moat there shot vertically upward a coruscantly refulgent band of intense yellow luminescence.’

Coruscant as adverb? Vertically upward? Just in case a reader thought it had gone horizontally upward…no? Um. For some reason I haven’t managed ‘refulgent’ yet in my own writing. Ahem.

What’s your favoured style?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2012