De Romanicorum Physicalium 8

Science fiction.
  • The replicators in Star Trek, aside from how they should totally fill the ship with antimatter and blow it up, are the mother of all "bringing far more power to bear than the problem requires" approaches. Because while food synthesizers that are essentially 3d printers, assembling foods out of simpler components, would be a good idea, replicators form it, directly, from energy, particle by particle.

    The same, by the bye, is true of transporters: there is not and never could be a situation where those make more sense than landing-vehicles. The slight time savings is not—and, again, never could be—worth the amount of energy necessary to convert the mass of the average human (69.3 kg, in case you wondered) to energy. Considering that the energy equivalent of 69.3 kg is 6.2 exajoules...or the energy consumption of an entire Kardashev I civilization over 17 days, 22 hours, 33 minutes, 19 seconds.

    It only takes 63 megajoules per kilogram (yes, "only", welcome to space-travel physics) to propel objects to escape velocity. That means that it could be cheaper to beam a four-person away-team than to send them on a landing craft, since getting it back into space might be energy intensive...provided the landing craft masses 393,650,793,651 kilograms, or 989.6 times the canonical mass of the Enterprise D.

    Seriously, it's like, suppose you want to make an underwater breathing device without having to carry air. The smart way is to filter dissolved oxygen from the surrounding water, i.e. gills. The silly way is to use electricity to separate the water into hydrogen and oxygen. And the Star Trek way is to fuse the hydrogen atoms many times over, until they become oxygen.
  • Many discussions of future linguistic change seem to be far too married to the idea that dialects are going to change to incomprehensibility in a few centuries—they claim we shouldn't be able to understand people from Star Trek's era. Now, aside from the fact you could've understood Shakespeare pretty much fine (he would've had a funny accent—since even Pope, born 72 years after Shakespeare died, thought "sea" and "say" were homophones—but you could've understood each other), there is a substantial body of research into how media have influenced dialect. Namely? The ability to record and broadcast sound is killing off dialects and causing a great deal of "smoothing" in the direction of the standard varieties. It started with radio, and it really took off with TV.

    It is not, and never was, a matter of simply hearing the standard variety; most of the people who claim that's what's being argued are fighting strawmen. Also they're often British, so for them, of course, dialect has a political component that is less present or wholly absent for other Anglophone societies. As at least one of them (the "Futurese" guy) actually said, regional dialects are the language of the home, what people grow up speaking, and thus are reverted to in a "home" environment. Only...television is people's home-life now, especially in Britain, where more children have televisions in their bedrooms than live with their biological fathers. And TV is in the standard dialect, so everybody's speech moves closer to that, unless they deliberately prevent it.

    Obviously, of course, dialects that get a lot of TV-exposure will be reinforced just as much as the standard one is; Osaka Japanese, Cockney British, and certain Southern American accents are likely to stick around for a while. But I'll bet you they change to conform much more closely to the media-presented versions, and dialects that don't get that exposure are likely to die off. Do they still use "ar" for "yes" in Sussex? I doubt it.
  • The NASA AX-5 experimental hard suit—quite possibly the goofiest-looking spacesuit ever, and please consider some of the competition—masses between 77 and 86 kg, i.e. an average one is 81.5 kg (180 lbs). That sounds horrible, till you find out a "Newtsuit" deep-sea diving rig masses between 275 and 378 kg, and the US Navy's ADS 2000 diving suit masses 436 kg (MJOLNIR Mk. V and VI suits worn by Spartan-IIs mass 454 kg, only 18 more than the ADS 2000).

    Though the AX-5 looks ridiculous, it uses an interesting idea: constant-volume joints. Instead of having accordion-joints (called "convolutes"), like most spacesuits (and animals, look at a hairless cat, or the back of your fingers), where a pleated section of material unpleats when flexed, it uses stacks of rotating cuffs to bend without changing volume. How flexible is it? Apparently you can get into 95% of the positions you can get into stark naked, that's how flexible.

    I think it's made of fiberglass, certainly some of its AX-# predecessors were.
  • The theme that plays under the Halo 4 main menu, and several versions of the main Halo theme, and several places in Battlestar Galactica, all raise an interesting question. Namely, when, exactly, did we decide the appropriate musical representation of "space" was wordless, vaguely Middle Eastern-sounding, female vocals?

    Seriously, what is that? Is there some intrinsic connection between "space" and "lady muezzin" that I just missed somewhere? Did someone hear people praising Yoko Kanno's music for shows like Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, and then mix her up with Yoko Ono? It's weird, is what it is, and that everyone started doing it at once is even weirder.
  • Know what we should see in first-contact scenarios, but never do? I mean the ones that happen on Earth? We should see all the various global factions trying to use the aliens as weapons against their rivals. I mean, first contact is always basically Europeans from Space, and lets Hollywood have white people as their unhistoric Noble Savage Indians. But in real history, just about the first thing that happened to Europeans was the natives tried to make alliances with them to use them against their enemies.

    Why do you think Cortez had all those Indian allies? Everybody hated the Tenochca/Aztec Triple Alliance/the people you think of when you hear "Aztec" even though several of their enemies were the same ethnicity and that wasn't actually their name anywaynote. So they saw Cortez, and they said, "Dude, you freaking have wands that make fireballs appear when you point them at people, and our weapons shatter like the glass they are when they hit you. Anyway, we know these big jerks..."

    The same is true of India and Sub-Saharan Africa, where various chiefs and leaders tried to use Europeans against both their rival compatriots and the other colonizing influence, absent from the New World: Islam. Why does science fiction always blithely assume that the world would unite against an alien invasion, or that friendly aliens would want them united? Why does it assume that hostile aliens would manipulate humans into fighting each other? Cortez didn't want to fight the Aztecs, his Indian allies pretty much forced his hand. If they're bothering to talk at all, they can be manipulated (which would be a good justification, indeed just about the only one, for one of those "screw you, we just want you to die" alien invasions).
  • It is generally true that, not having to counteract friction, spaceships' engines should only glow while they're being fired. Did you sense a "but" coming? If so, you're perceptive. Because there are exceptions. Some spaceship engines take a long time to cool down or warm up, so you wouldn't actually turn them off, you'd just turn off the propellant-flow (engines like that heat faster if you're not firing them—the whole way rockets work is that the exhaust carries energy away—so radiators are even more important than usual for ships like that). You might still see some light deep inside the nozzles of that sort of rocket.

    Of course, the major category of engines that don't just turn off are a thing you never see in visual-media SF, and seldom in print. Because the big one is the NERVA/ROVER nuclear thermal rocket—it cools down and heats up about as quickly (or rather as slowly) as a submarine engine, because that's basically what it is, but with a hydrogen exhaust-stream swapped in for the turbine-moving steam. They're not used in fiction because despite making our current rockets look like the toys they are, they're still boringly weak for plot purposes (they may get you to Mars three times as fast but that's still two months, and most SF settings are not assuming Age of Sail travel times). Well, that, and our flint-knapping hunter-gatherer taboo on the very concept of fission.
  • So it's actually relatively common knowledge—I think Cracked writers know about it, and they generally need two tries to put sunglasses on the front of their heads—that cyborgs as portrayed in fiction would actually rip themselves apart from the strain (although a lot of fictional cyborgs actually have their whole skeletons and many tissues reinforced—like many "fiction is so inaccurate" complaints, it is itself often inaccurate). But what doesn't seem to be common knowledge is that cyborgs would be sharply limited by power requirements.

    It is possible to power things like Pacemakers from the body's own magnetic field, and in principle one could power things like prosthetic limbs with the same amount of energy that goes to normal ones (though I'm guessing the inefficiency of converting between the body's energy system and an electronic one would mean you'd actually have to increase your caloric intake by better than 50%, relative to the proportion of your caloric output a given limb takes up). But if your prosthetic limb has markedly greater strength than a human, you're going to need batteries.

    You could actually get some cool body-horror out of, say, battle-cyborgs who can no longer eat because their digestive tracts have been removed to make room for battery packs (and they get their replacement nutrients, which might include raw materials for self-repair systems, in an injection). The kind of enhancement shown in a lot of fiction, admittedly not the hardest—not therapeutic prosthetics, not even a double or even triple-strength limb (which wouldn't actually translate to doubled capabilities, thanks to the aforementioned structural issues of the rest of the body), I mean the "dozens or hundreds of times stronger" things—would require that kind of major anatomical reworking, for the remotely foreseeable future. Unless the cyborgs also carry highly-volatile batteries the size of a largish oxygen tank like an emphysema-sufferer might lug around, and that's not a liability in a battle, at all.
  • It seems like, in a delicious irony, so far from space never seeing dogfighting, it might at some point become the only place it happens. We still have plane-to-plane fights, no matter how good our missiles or how fast our fighters get—it's just that nowadays "dogfights" happen at ranges of thirty kilometers. But improvements in drone tech might (along with all the other things they're ruining) finally put paid to that, because a drone can endure maneuvers that'd shred a pilot.

    But in space? Well, nothing on the surface of this planet is more than about .15 seconds away, for a radio signal. In space, lag kills, and anything close enough to a drone to control it is close enough to get attacked along with it (there isn't "terrain" for you to hide in, nothing on a planet's surface offers a comparison for just how exposed you are in space). There's no reason not to cut out the middleman and put the weapons that would've gone on a drone on the ship that would control the drone. Of course, the ship would still probably have a more-than-solo crew, and it wouldn't behave like a P-38 or a Sopwith Camel, but you knew that.


Tenuous Stuff from Which the World Was Made

Post on worldbuilding. Quote's from Belloc's cracked-out dedication in "On Nothing and Kindred Subjects":
...Indeed, indeed when I think what an Elixir is this Nothing I am for putting up a statue nowhere, on a pedestal that shall not exist, and for inscribing on it in letters that shall never be written:




Now when [the Elohim—here deliberately mistranslated as an actual rather than an honorific plural] had got that far, and debated the Idea in detail, and with amendment and resolve, it very greatly concerned them of what so admirable a compost should be mixed. Some said of this, and some said of that, but in the long run it was decided by the narrow majority of eight in a full house that Nothing was the only proper material out of which to make this World of theirs, and out of Nothing they made it: as it says in the Ballade:
Dear, tenuous stuff, of which the world was made.
And again in the Envoi:
Prince, draw this sovereign draught in your despair,
That when your riot in that rest is laid,
You shall be merged with an Essential Air:—
Dear, tenuous stuff, of which the world was made!
Out of Nothing then did they proceed to make the world, this sweet world...
And it goes on like that. My God but that man could ramble. Anyway, again, worldbuilding.
  • How come elves in things are dying off? I mean, I know the real reason—because they are in Tolkien—but in-universe, why? A human female will average 462 fertile periods in her lifetime (menarche at 12.5, menopause at 51, roughly 12 cycles a year)—minus pregnancies, and periods spent breastfeeding. Elves in most fantasy settings exhibit at least comparable fertility, relative to their life-spans. And elves have better medicine and fewer wars than humans in every setting I can think of except Dark Sun, so they'd have a much lower infant mortality rate. If the elves were as worried by humans "edging them out" as they're always portrayed, there's absolutely no reason they couldn't do something about it, except Authorial Fiat.

    The "elves as dying race" thing is simply a worldbuilding mistake. Tolkien got it from the Romantics who saw "faërie" retreating before modernity (Chesterton, who not being a university professor wasn't so easily fooled, saw the modern world as just another place where the unwary might get spirited away); other writers get it from Irish legend, whose fairies are mostly mythologized aborigines conflated with the Celtic equivalents of nymphs and yakshas. You won't find the fairies in Norse myth in retreat from humans, nor in any Eastern European folklore, nor in Asia (in many ways, still not in Asia—America or Western Europe could never produce the manga "Fuan no Tane"). Just the opposite: humans live on tiny little reservations in the midst of vast domains ruled by other people.
  • Speaking of people blindly following unexamined precedent, what's with all the mages and thieves having guilds? Mages might have apprentices, but not on a guild basis, they're on the same basis that rabbis and pre-Trent priests trained their successors (often their sons, in the case of rabbis and non-celibate priests)—the Sorcerer's Apprentice (the poem by Goethe or the piece of music used in Fantasia) is almost certainly based on an Ashkenazi golem-legend. Thieves' guilds, on the other hand, are pretty much because of Leiber—because Lankhmar is so decadent, even its thieves (and assassins and prostitutes) have hidebound professional associations. Also, metafictionally, Lankhmar is New York, so of course everybody's union.

    Thieves in fantasy probably ought to learn their trade the way real thieves do: they fall in with a bad crowd and/or grow up in unpleasant circumstances, and develop their abilities either under the influence of said bad crowd, and/or as necessity to survive. They eventually graduate from petty theft to more specialized, rarefied arts like safe-cracking or the fantasy equivalent, or else move onto more lucrative versions of petty theft, like stealing cars (of course, it doesn't take three or four years to produce a car, it does take that long to produce a rideable horse...so horse-thieving is often a capital crime).

    Mages, meanwhile, probably ought to learn like someone else in the society the setting is analogized to. I.e., if the mages are the nobles (or a part of them) in a medievalesque setting, they should probably learn on the squire-basis used by knights. If they're the clergy, then, oddly enough, they really could have magical universities, because the original purpose of universities was training theologians. Or whatever training is appropriate—if the setting's more like China, maybe magical trials take the place of the civil-service exams. Has anyone ever had mages whose training is like that of geishas (maybe with spirits as the clients)? That idea practically writes itself; work smarter, not harder, people!
  • But seriously, find an alternative to wizard schools, no matter how justifiable wizard colleges are from a worldbuilding standpoint. The idea's been done to death. It was already cliché as hell when Harry Potter did it. Then light novels and manga proceeded to beat that dead horse to stiff peaks, because they shoehorn in a school-setting whenever remotely possible, to enhance "relatability" for their audience (Japanese minors spend more time at school than in all other waking activities combined, though admittedly part of that's because their sports and other organized leisure activities are mostly through school clubs).

    Thieves' and mages' guilds are also overdone (see above), and what's worse, 90% of the time, wrong. They're usually portrayed as working like a combination of a trade union and an employment agency. That's not what a guild is. A guild is a professional association crossed with a credit union. First off, why don't thieves or mages have to perform "masterworks" to get full membership? Second, why do guilds seem to have leaders? The head of the AMA or the ADA are not the leaders of all doctors or dentists, they're just the chairmen of their meetings. That's what the head of a guild is.

    Of course, as a general rule, mages or thieves would not receive work through their guild, anymore than you contact the bar association if you need a lawyer. A guild has very little actual presence in its members' lives; they have to follow its rules (which sounds terrible until you say the magic words "unlicensed doctor"), but they don't, strictly speaking, have to pay dues, because again, not a union. While a guild often gets a cut of its members' profits, that's usually because guilds double as credit-unions for their members, and were also the main source of insurance in the premodern world. "All the members pay in" is how insurance works, you know.
  • Not directly related to fantasy, but related to cultural history and anthropology (and brought to mind by the thing about how many fertile periods a woman has in her lifetime)...do you know why there's all those taboos on menstruation? Yes, blood—but there's more to it than that. In hunter-gatherer and most subsistence-agriculture societies, people married pretty much the moment they could have kids. A woman spent most of her time pregnant or nursing; hunter-gatherer and especially subsistence-agriculturist men travel little, virtually never very far without their wives, so couples pretty much spent every night together, with predictable results.

    That means that for most women in prehistory, when all our taboos were actually forming, menstruation was a weird and unusual thing. And given it involves blood coming from one's privates, it's pretty weird even when it's not unusual. While menstruation would become less shocking in a more advanced society (societies whose agriculture could produce surpluses tended to held off marriage at least to the late teens, meaning a typical girl would probably have a couple years of monthly periods), the taboos would already be in place.
  • Don't assume, however, that you understand a purity code without reference to its actual content. Some dumbshit Scandinavian scholar (who really should've known better—except of course for ideology-blindness), cited on a Wikipedia article, claimed that the fact the Norse had a god of childbirth indicated that they didn't regard menstruation as unclean. Leaving to one side that childbirth != menstruation, I'm sure that reasoning would come as a surprise to Korean shamans, who have a goddess of childbirth and yet will throw women out of rituals if they're menstruating.

    And yet, while death is a pollution, and Asian religions have several taboos about, for instance, visiting a household that's in mourning (it's common decency to visit to offer condolences, but it's also common sense to take ritual precautions), the dead themselves are not a pollution in Korean shamanism. The opposite: shamans are the only people who can deal with ancestor-spirits safely, outside the framework of Confucian ancestor-worship. You see how you have to actually examine the traditions? Assuming will just cause confusion.
  • Remember how I was worrying about having a carriage in a quasi-12th century setting? That's the kind of thing I get up to. But as a general rule, consider what technologies you take for granted, in fantasy (also in science fiction though it's less urgent there). Know why Rome burned, Nero-provided soundtrack optional? Their houses were wood and stone chimneys weren't invented till the early Middle Ages, that's why. Seriously, watch a Japanese period drama: notice what you got in the middle of rooms? Fire-pits. Asia didn't get the chimney till Westernization. Most Japanese houses still don't have central heating, hence the prominence of the kotatsu, a heated table with a quilt-skirt that you sit at to stay warm. (While we're on the subject, hey Bethesda, smithies with wooden overhangs connected to wooden houses? Seriously? Stop that, Skyrim's blacksmiths are more of a fire-hazard than the dragons ever were.)

    Or hey, know what the Maya didn't have (besides the wheel or the arch)? Multiplication and division. They did math the way computers do, they added or subtracted a whole lot. They also didn't have fractions (mathematically; they did have the linguistic concepts of half and quarter)—those ultra-accurate calculations of theirs were solely achieved by direct observation, with no extrapolation. They measured the time it took for the sun to appear at the same spots relative to their observatory windows—specifically that it took 182,621 days for it to appear at the same precise spot 500 times, which is an error of only 17 seconds—but, lacking fractions and division, they could not express that as "a year is 182,621/500 days long". That the Maya had calculated the length of a year as being 365.242 days long is something we can say about them; that "182,621 days is exactly 500 years" automatically tells you the length of a single year was not something they were directly able to express—again, they lacked the concepts of division and fractions.

    Any math teacher will tell you, the conceptual leap involved there is not automatic.
  • Another thing one ought to do is study etiquette. Go look up the Japanese tea ceremony, or for that matter the etiquette surrounding consumption of Tibetan butter tea. That former case is full of possibilities for fantasy writers. For instance, you're supposed to make a soft slurping noise when you drink (only a soft one). Now, that's probably a parallel of the fact it's also proper to make a certain amount of noise when eating (only a little—eating loudly is still rude in Japan). Mainly it shows eagerness and appetite, a hearty acceptance of the food offered. Remember, Pacific islanders: food is important to them.

    There might, however, be another element. A lot of the ideas in the tea ceremony presuppose that the participants are strangers, hence all its adages about making single meetings as good as a lifetime (i.e., you wouldn't want someone to find you unpleasant your whole life, so don't make their single meeting with you unpleasant, either). Them being strangers, it is entirely possible that the slight noise upon sipping the tea is to show the others that you're drinking the tea: and thus haven't drugged it. Slavers were an issue in remote areas during the Edo period, and also, well, there was a reason Japanese women used pseudonyms well into the Meiji era. Namely? Witches.

    Sounds crazy to you, but anyone who knows any Navajo customs will tell you, they don't traditionally let strangers anywhere near their food or the areas to prepare it. Lots of people's word for witch means "poisoner", and almost everybody's witches made scary potions that could be slipped into drinks. I don't know if "I haven't put anything in this tea, see, I'm drinking it" was a factor in tea-ceremony, but in a fantasy setting? That would make perfect sense as a part of etiquette.