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There was this science fiction book that I read when I was a teenager. I thought it was in my dad’s book collection, but I haven’t been able to find it and I can’t remember the title or author. It was a pretty good story, or at least I remember it being a pretty good story, anyway, and I would like to reread it.
In the story, there was a secret group that had developed technology for travelling between parallel universes. In the multi-verse of the story, there were a great many time lines with alternate US histories and in particular differences in who signed historic documents – I think the Declaration of Independence was the main one, though it could have been the constitution. If I recall the story correctly, there were collectors who trafficked in rare alternate versions of these documents (our version was quite commonplace).
I remember one scene (the first chapter?) in which a historian who specialized in the document in question was visiting the National Archives and reading through it and fainted when he got to the signatures. Someone had substituted a rare version of the document for the actual one from our universe.
Can someone identify the title and author of this story?
Throughout science fiction and fantasy fandom, there are questions like this. What was the meaning of one part of a certain book. What is the science behind some event. Every story or franchise inspires people to ask questions like these. We want stuff explained. We want to understand.
And now there is a place to go where we can ask these questions. The folks who created the programmer support community Stack Overflow have created other sites devoted to a wide range of interests, and one of those sites is for fans of science fiction and fantasy.
So go, ask your questions. Answer some questions. Break the denizens out of their Doctor Who inspired stupor.
And now they’ve sweetened the pot with a “Topic of the Week” contest. With actual prizes that have real value. (Details can be found on the sci-fi meta site.)
Adaptations of science fiction and fantasy movies have been a sore subject with me for a long time. Most of the Hollywood types just don’t get these genres and so a great deal of crap is foisted upon us by clueless dweezles.
There are basically five types of changes that can be made as part of an adaptation.
The first of these are the obvious kind. Voluminous internal dialog, for example, just doesn’t work in a movie. If there are any crucial details, we might get them in narration or the screenwriter find some other way to show them. Most internal dialog just gets dumped.
Next up are changes that, while not strictly necessary, are nevertheless practical compromises that don’t really change the plot. For example, in the original book The Wizard of Oz, there are two good witches – the Good Witch of the North, who meets Dorothy in Munchkin Land at the beginning of the book, and Glinda, the Good Witch of the South, who helps Dorothy to use the Silver Shoes to get back to Kansas. In a movie adaptation, it makes sense to combine the two good witches into a single character, as it reduces the number of actors and increases the importance of the combined role, making it more attractive. Also, changing the Silver Shoes to Ruby Slippers makes sense as well because the Ruby Slippers give a more dramatic visual touch.
To my way of thinking, the next category is for changes that do not significantly affect the plot, but do change the flavor of the story. Again, going back to the Wizard of Oz, the character of Dorothy is much younger in the book – probably somewhere in the range of 8 to 10 years old. Judy Garland was 16 during the filming of the movie. While there is normally a huge difference between a ten year old and a sixteen year old in both looks and behavior, my biggest problem with using an older actress is how it looks to an audience. Think about the difference between a sixteen year old girl confronting a lion and a ten year old girl confronting the same lion. Even if the two scenes play out with identical dialog and action, they still wouldn’t come across the same to an audience. However, for the purposes of making a movie, finding a good sixteen year old actress is infinitely easier than finding an equally good ten year old actress.
Those three categories represent change that can be accepted, however grudgingly. There are still two categories remaining.
In the fourth category, we have changes that were made for no apparent reason. It doesn’t matter to me whether the makers of the movie felt the original story was lacking in some way, or whether they were clueless dweebs who, like a teenager with a can of spray paint, like to put their mark on something. The net result is that the artistic integrity of the story has been violated. Again, from the Wizard of Oz, the whole notion that what happened in Oz was just Dorothy’s fevered imagination clearly contradicts the book, to the severe detriment of the movie. To me, these kinds of changes are a kind of artistic fraud. The advertising claims that it was The Wizard of Oz, but no, it wasn’t, not really.
Finally, there is whatever happened to the Robert Heinlein classic Starship Troopers. I don’t even need to go into this in detail, there is an outstanding essay detailing what went wrong. Let’s just say that Verhoeven and his merry band of clowns are guilty of artistic homicide. We can only hope that they never again get ahold of the rights to adapt a science fiction story.
At this point, I’m sure that many readers are wondering what prompted this rant.
I recently watched the “10 minute scene” – basically the first ten minutes of the movie “John Carter”, the adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1917 SF classic A Princess of Mars. As near as I can tell, pretty much everything that happened in the first ten minutes of the movie falls into the fourth category – gratuitous changes made for no reason. This leaves me with very little hope that the movie is not irredeemably stupid.
Oh well. Maybe next time. I hear there’s an adaptation of David Weber’s On Basilisk Station in the works.
I was watching the Baltimore Ravens beat the Texans the other day, and for some unknown reason my mind wandered to a modern fantasy story that I enjoy – Princess of Wands by John Ringo (Baen). This is one of several stories in which faith and worship are the source of the magical energy deities use.
This begs the question – in such a universe, where does the magical power generated by sports fans go? I know that some of you are vehemently claiming that being a sports fan is nothing like worshiping a deity. To that, I say: hogwash! When it’s fourth and goal, even the most rabid atheist prays to the gods of football.
Thinking about my question, I went back over other stories that I believe fit into this same category. I can only think of two others at the moment – the Incarnations of Immortality books by Piers Anthony and the Harry Dresden novels by Jim Butcher. I don’t recall any mention of sports in the Dresden stories and it’s been too long since I read the Incarnations books.
If anyone reading this can think of another modern fantasy story that falls into this category, please post a comment. Especially if they have any mentions of sports.
In the meantime, I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel to the John Ringo novel. Queen of Wands has been announced with an August 7, 2012 release date.
My home computer is a bit older. Being a power user, I tend to stretch my computers to their limits, which means that I frequently bring it to its knees. The one piece of software that I rely on most is the web browser - which means I need a browser that is efficient in terms of both memory use and performance.
I routinely have at least a dozen tabs open, and often as many as two dozen. Most of the pages are programming documentation – often half a dozen of them at a time. If gmail wasn’t the first tab on the main window by habit, there are some days where I’m not entirely sure that I would be able to find it. This may or may not be how a typical user works, but its how I work. The browser better keep up.
For many years, the scrappy open source offering from Mozilla was my browser of choice. Despite the fact that Internet Explorer had most of the browser market sewn up, Mozilla just kept plugging away, hoping that by building a better browser, they would eventually chip away at Microsoft’s dominance. It’s hard to say, objectively, that it was or was not better, but I liked it and that was good enough for me. Of course, that fact that I use a Mac and couldn’t run IE even if I wanted to might have colored my perceptions.
So now it’s 2011 and Firefox isn’t my only choice any more. And, for my older computer, I’m starting to rethink that choice.
One thing that I was noticing about Firefox was that, after running it for weeks, its performance would start to bog down, dragging the rest of the machine with it. Memory use would routinely top out at near a GB – almost half the memory of this computer. Quitting became problematic too, as the program would frequently freeze when I tried to quit. Eventually it just became too much and I started looking at alternatives.
My first candidate was Safari -it is an Apple machine, after all. Safari was ok. It used significantly less memory, which greatly reduced its impact on the rest of the machine. Eventually, though, I decided that it wasn’t much of an improvement, all things considered. It had this annoying tendency to decide that it wanted to reload every tab that I had open. With two dozen tabs open, this could take as much as ten minutes. I’m a patient man, but when that happened, it was just too annoying to bear.
So then I tried Chrome. Now after using it for a couple of weeks, it clearly isn’t perfect. Chrome also likes to redraw tabs, but only tabs that haven’t been active for a while, and only when they become the active tab. There are some things about it (such as the download screen) that I don’t like as much – but other details (such as some of the buttons and their placement) that I like better. It’s harder to judge memory usage as Chrome splits up its functionality over multiple processes. Taken together, though, I think that it still does much better than Firefox and the fragmented architecture might give better performance on the newer multi-core processors (for those lucky enough to have them).
Overall, I’ve found Chrome to be the most suitable for me and would recommend it to anyone who is a demanding browser user. It also has some great extensions. Check out AdBlock! For Facebook users, I would recommend Facebook Photo Zoom.
This weekend, my wife and I took a long weekend trip to Williamsburg, Virginia. We had three major goals for this trip:
- Visit Colonial Williamsburg
- Stay in a bed and breakfast
All that was required to satisfy the first goal was paying the one day ticket fee and spend upwards of eight hours walking around.
Picking just one B&B out of the many available was a very difficult task due to the variety of places (thirty or so). I’ll save you all the trouble and tell you flat out that, if at all possible, you should stay at the Bentley Manor Inn.
The proprietors, Fred and Jane Garland, have a quality operation. Everything was remarkably clean, neat and well organized. The omelet I had the first morning and apple pancakes I had the second were both very tasty. Fred and Jane made it feel more like a Big Family Breakfast than breakfast out. They were also very knowledgeable of the area and we found their observations and recommendations to be spot on.
Two general observations about B&Bs. First, Fred and Jane, who have spent many nights in other B&Bs, recommend that, if cleanliness is important to you, you should look for an owner-occupied building. Owners tend to take cleanliness more personally when it’s their own house. Second, if at all possible, don’t pay with a credit card. In the current economy, margins are very slim and card fees take a hefty bite out of them.
The first night, we ate at a place that Fred recommended, Center Street Grill. I had the pulled pork BBQ sandwich (Carolina style, i.e., vinegar rather than tomato based) and it was some of the best pulled pork that I’ve ever had. We also did some shopping in the New Town shopping area where the restaurant was located. Lots of national chains, but some local shops and much more reasonably priced than restaurants and shops in the historic area.
After leaving New Town, we headed to Colonial Williamsburg for one of the many ghost tours, “Ghosts Amongst Us.” There is a thriving business in such activities, but only the tours affiliated with the Colonial Williamsburg foundation have access to the insides of the buildings. The stories were seriously spooky.
The next day we did the historic stuff. I wish that our schedule would have permitted us a second day – we had neither the time nor the energy to get through everything. Lots of walking plus most of the historic sites close at 5pm. We concentrated on three main sites. Basset Hall was owned by the Rockerfellers and used as a “cottage” in the spring and fall. The Capital was the seat of the House of Burgesses, where the “Give me liberty or give me death” speech was given. The Governor’s Mansion is a restoration of the building used by the governor during the period where Williamsburg was the capital of Virginia. The guides were all extremely knowledgable and we enjoyed the day very much. I do wish that there had been more reenactment, though.
Lunch was at Seasons Restaurant. Very disappointing. I had a prime rib sandwich which was fatty and tasted rather plain despite being almost $9.00 (a side, such as fries would have been almost $3.00 more). For dinner we went back to the New Town shopping area to El Tapatio Mexican Grill & Bar. Very good food, generous portions, reasonable prices and fast, friendly service.
The next morning, my wife wanted to stop at the Pottery Factory, a store that she had been to previously that was well known for having cheap odd and ends but with a wide enough variety that just about everyone could find something they liked. In the past we have enjoyed shopping at a similar store in Myrtle Beach. Unfortunately this time, we found very little of interest.
Overall, while we enjoyed the activities, we mostly just enjoyed taking a couple of days to be together. We will probably go back – in addition to seeing the rest of Colonial Williamsburg, we would also like to see Jamestown and Yorktown.
One of the major differences between science and technology is that new scientific discoveries can completely invalidate previous theories but any device that worked in the past will continue to work in the future. Even if anti-gravity were to be discovered tomorrow, wheels would continue to exist for as long as humans do. The circumstances in which a given engineering concept or technology applies may be reduced by new concepts or technologies but very few things disappear entirely.
In Hit List, the latest volume of the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novels, Anita Blake comments on a piece of mandatory equipment – her bullet proof vest:
When we got to the SUV we put on the full gear for monster hunting, including the vest, which I hated the most. It hampered movement and it wouldn’t stop either a vampire or a wereanimal.
The problem with bullet proof vests being that they are useless against sharp weapons such as blades and claws. Now, there is a something that offers some protection against sharp weapons, but it’s been around for hundreds of years and is consequently dismissed by many as obsolete. Yes, I’m talking about chain mail. Of course, if you’re going to arm a modern character with something like that, you’ll want to update it. Take this description from Changes, the twelfth volume of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden novels.
Molly was dressed in her battle coat, which consisted of a shirt of tightly woven metal links, fashioned by her mother out of titanium wire. The mail was then sandwiched between two long Kevlar vests. All of that was, in turn, fixed to one of several outer garments, and in this case she was wearing a medium-brown fireman’s coat.
I’m sure that the U.S. Marshal’s Service could come up with something a little more polished, but you get the idea. As with fashion, any good engineering concept or technology is likely to be reused sooner or later.
Another area where authors can run into trouble I’ll call “technological inertia” – the assumption that some things work adequately and so there’s no reason to believe that they will be substantially different in the future.
In the Honor Harrington stories by David Weber, shipboard systems (such as weapons) are managed from the bridge by way of “control runs” – dedicated communication lines. The problem with control runs is that they are vulnerable in combat. Such as in chapter 33 of The Honor of The Queen:
“We’ve lost the control runs to the after ring, Skipper!” Commander Higgins reported from Damage Central. “We’re down to two-sixty gees!”
A full half of the ships propulsion system is inoperative because the dedicated lines have been severed by combat damage! Very bad design for a ship that is hundreds of years in advance of anything that we could currently build. Ordinary twenty-first century technology could put together control systems that would be invulnerable to such damage for the simple reason that they would be massively redundant.
All you need is a network of fiber-optic cables and routers. Fiber-optic cables are cheap enough and small enough that every bulkhead could have several small fiber clusters running through it. The routers are small enough that they could be placed at every intersection between two corridors on every level of the ship. As long as some fiber pathway existed between two systems, they would be able to talk, but with that much fiber, the number of available pathways would be huge. An enemy would just about have to cut the ship in two before controls on one end of the ship would be isolated from systems on the other. If you were really serious about redundancy, you could add wireless connections between routers as well.
From later in the Harrington series, in Honor Among Enemies there is this conversation – from a post exercise debriefing.
“I, uh, I rerouted the data, Ma’am—I mean, Milady,” Aubrey said, flushing darker than ever as he corrected himself, but she only shook her head gently.
“‘Ma’am’ is fine. Where’d you reroute to?”
“Uh, well, the array itself was still up, Ma’am. It was only the coupling. But the data from all the arrays runs through Junction Three-Sixty One. It’s a preprocessing node, and the blown sector was downstream.” He swallowed. “So I, uh, I overrode the main computers to reprogram the data buses and dumped it through Radar Six.”
“So that’s what happened,” Lieutenant Jansen said. “You know you cut half my starboard point defense radar out of the circuit when you did it?”
We’ll leave the enumeration of the many problems with this section as an exercise for the reader.
I don’t want folks to think that I dislike these books or that the technical shortcomings above have marred my enjoyment of them (much). For the most part, both authors do a very good with making the technical aspects of their works feel “real” and I can only hope that I will be able to do that well.
This opens up an interesting question, one that, as an aspiring writer, I can’t really pretend to know the answer to. What can we do during the research, writing or editing phases of creating a novel to insure that we don’t overlook technical details that will annoy our readers?
In a science-fiction related mailing list, a friend of mine posted a link to a news story about the possibility of hacking into insulin pumps that have wireless capabilities. In her email, she lamented “It’s going to get harder & harder to write science FICTION when things like this are real!”
So the question is then: how can science fiction authors predict this kind of thing so that their fiction can be more realistic? And the answer of course is that they can’t. Nor should they try. There’s a reason for the saying “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Furthermore, however much personal satisfaction an author might get out of successfully predicting some future advancement, that’s not what science fiction is about.
Sure, there are SF stories that focus on a particular idea or invention – how it was discovered, developed or explored and its eventual fate. Most stories, though, focus on the consequences of the idea, either for some select group or for society at large. Science fiction can thus present hope that an idea will help make life better or a warning as to how things could go horribly awry – or both.
I contend that the job of authors who deal with technology (science fiction or otherwise) is not to try to predict what technologies will be invented, but rather to create convincing pictures of what could happen in a society with a given set of technologies. It is considered polite, among science fiction readers to accept the scientific and technological assumptions that the author makes but the author must then make a convincing case for the effects of those assumptions on society in general and the story’s characters in particular. Before he can make his case convincing, he must carefully consider what those effects will be and fans tend to be righteously annoyed with authors who overlook details they believe to be obvious.
If you didn’t like the anthropomorphic talking cars from the original movie, it is highly unlikely that you will like the sequel because in one sense, it’s just more of the same. However, if you thought the talking cars were cute, but found the plot lacking then it is entirely possible that you might enjoy the sequel. If, like me, you enjoyed the original then there is a very good chance that you will like this one.
While the first movie was very much an introduction to the universe of the living, talking cars, the plot itself was very small scale and intimate: many scenes consisted of just two characters talking. The second movie is the same world, but the story is much larger scale – James Bond scale. Yes, jetting-around-the-globe-and-saving-the-world James Bond scale.
Now, I won’t kid you, the plot is a little silly and somewhat far-fetched, but then, this is ostensibly a kids movie that we’re talking about. It isn’t entirely a kids movie – the underlying themes are serious enough to challenge anyone. But, since it is primarily a kids movie, the best way to approach it is to embrace your inner kid and just enjoy the silliness.
I very much enjoyed the movie. The cars are still cute, but we get to see more of their world – and Pixar did an outstanding job of filling in little details that make it really come alive. Visually, this is a beautiful film – again, thanks to the artists at Pixar. The thing that I most appreciated was something that really surprised me. If you want to know what it was, send me an email – I’m not big on spoilers.
Six modern length novels is a heck of a lot of words.
The Lost Fleet is a military science fiction series set in a universe with two human civilizations – The Alliance and the Syndicate Worlds (Syndics). These two civilizations have been at war for 100 years now, and there is a considerable amount of fatigue and desperation on both sides.
Enter the story’s protagonist, Captain John “Black Jack” Geary. He was present, and in command, during the first military confrontation at the very beginning of the war. In that battle, his ship was destroyed, but he managed to get to an escape pod. Unfortunately, the pod’s communications were damaged and so he was forced to go into cryogenic suspended animation. His pod drifted, slowly running down. Just days before the story opens, an Alliance fleet stumbles across it while in transit to what is hoped to be a decisive blow against the Syndic capital system.
In the 100 years that he has been asleep, much has changed in the universe – and this gives the author plenty of opportunities to show us what has happened. Pay careful attention to what is going on because some of the main story arc’s most important details are revealed in dribs an drabs throughout the books. Much of the text concerns the battles fought between The Alliance and the Syndics, but there is also a bit of mystery, very nearly a galactic detective story, that was refreshingly subtle compared to the sledge hammer pounding of victory-or-death combat.
One of the aspects of the story that I found most interesting, was how the author explored notions of honor and right-vs-wrong in a society that has been at war for an entire century. The use of torture and the waging of war against unarmed civilians are not theoretical exercises to Captain Geary and his people.
I enjoyed the series tremendously and am looking forward to the follow-0n series “Beyond the Frontier.”
Here is another movie by Steven Spielberg where the protagonist is an adolescent boy and there’s an alien. While it might sound familiar, and while there might be some superficial parallels, this is definitely not some kind of ET remake. This is darker and grittier. This is coming of age on the fast track where the dilemmas are adult, they are challenging, and people’s lives are at stake.
The story centers around four boys who are engaged in the making of an amateur zombie movie being filmed in … Super 8. The director is the protagonist’s best friend and the protagonist is the special effects and make-up guy. One of the guys is the star of the movie. The other operates the camera and plays various zombies.
There is a girl (Elle Fanning, Dakota Fanning’s younger sister) who is brought in to play the wife in the zombie movie. The protagonist has a serious crush on her – and so does the director. Her character provides some of the most surprising moments in the movie.
While they’re filming a scene at the local train station, a passing train derails catastrophically. The meat of the movie is the investigation into the cause of the crash and how it affects the town in which most of the characters live.
One thing that Super 8 shares with ET is moments of pure cinema magic. This movie is a rich and complicated story where the details matter and wonderful stuff is everywhere.
The movie is full of interesting people, many of whom are wrestling with serious issues. I think that the predominant theme, though, is forgiveness. What can be forgiven? What is required before forgiveness becomes possible?
Overall, I thought it was a superb movie, worth seeing in the theater (if you enjoy big screen viewing). Plan on staying through the credits, though – there’s a little surprise.