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For the Love of Secrets Past

Neat, but there probably isn't a fusion reactor in there.

Neat, but there probably isn’t a fusion reactor in there.

Do you ever wonder why the ancients always seem to have crazy secret stuff hidden away in holes? I do. I mean, don’t get me wrong – I think ancient ruins and the history of ancient peoples is really cool, and am often impressed with the innovations they developed – but there’s a notable trend in scifi and fantasy to show the ancient world as superior, more advanced, wiser, and better than the society shown as contemporary. If you think about it, it’s almost hard to think of a fantasy book that doesn’t do this. Everybody from Tolkien to Howard to Martin to Jordan to, gosh, everybody seems to get a piece of this. Science Fiction has its fair share, too – from Star Wars’ Old Republic to Asimov’s Galactic Empire and even Mass Effect has a lot of that ‘faded glory of ages past’ thing going on.  What the hell?

To some extent this is all because of the Romans or, maybe more accurately, the Dark Ages. Humanity hit a peak with the Pax Romana and then, after a lot of bad decisions and slow erosion, it slumped into the Dark Ages, which is definitely a low. Oh, and let’s not give Europe all the blame, either. Similar stuff happened to the Islamic world after the fall of the Abbasid Caliphate and to the Chinese after the fall of the Ming Dynasty. No doubt there are descendants of the Aztecs in Mexico who pine for the glory days of  Tenochtitlan and Egyptians who look with wonder back on the works of the Pharaohs. History is littered with the corpses of great civilizations that preceded long periods of unimpressive or downright barbaric culture, so tendencies to look at the ancients (who got it ‘right’) for guidance are, to some extent, culturally ingrained in us.

Let’s not get carried away, though. Ancient Rome might have been neat, but to suggest that their civilization was ‘better’ or ‘more advanced’ than our own is a clear exaggeration.  We do lots and lots and lots of things better than the Romans ever did. Did they achieve some things we haven’t? Well, maybe, but it wasn’t ‘ancient laser beams’ or ‘the secret to immortality.’ They probably had a slightly better way to, I don’t know, make a canoe paddle or organize a mail system without vehicles. Fascinating, but not the kind of thing you dig up out of an ancient ruin and then proceed to use in the conquest of the Earth. Our civilization is at its own little peak, and it is currently producing the kind of tricks that the next Dark Age might marvel at, but the civilized peak after that one will look at and say ‘my, weren’t they so clever without the use of moldable nanotechnology and germline genetic engineering!’ Nobody’s going to dig up a Harrier jet and fight off an alien invasion. That would be silly.

I am the first person to say that technological progress isn’t strictly linear (if you want a real-world example, take a look at this article), but I also don’t think humanity is prone to being total boneheads. We are more advanced today because, in large part, we have learned from those who have come before us. The cleverness of ages past is not evidence that they were somehow smarter than us, but rather that they were just as smart. They figured some stuff out we didn’t, wound up not using it so much, and the rest of the world sort of forgot. Later on, some other guy figured the same thing out and did it again, but then an archaeologist says ‘the Romans could do this, you know’ and then a bunch of people run around saying the Romans were the most brilliant folks who ever lived because they thought of ‘x’ thousands of years before anyone else. Then somebody points out the Chinese/Egyptians/Persians/whoever actually thought of it before them, and tout this as some kind of evidence of humanity’s escalating intelligence the further back we go. This simply isn’t true; what it is evidence for is that humanity has always been pretty smart and periodically hits upon the same ideas and accomplishes them in whatever way necessity dictates they must.

To bring this back to the specfic genres, I feel it would be refreshing to find more fantasy novels that weren’t so obsessed with the whole sic transit et gloria mundi theme. I’d like to see cultures on the rise, surpassing their forebears, blazing new ground, showing how silly the old conservatives are to stick to their old ways. We get plenty of this in science fiction, to be fair, but fantasy could use that same spirit. Maybe I’m expecting something out of the genre that isn’t under it’s purview–maybe fantasy is a genre designed for those who long for the past and see nothing but peril in the present. I don’t think so, though. I’d like to think our wildest dreams can lead us forward, not just backward.

Warp Drive? Really?

This story’s been out there for a while, and I haven’t talked about it mostly because I’ve been waiting to see if we get anything more solid, but here it goes: NASA is working on an actual warp drive.

Wow.

Of course, there’s something that particular article doesn’t mention: Arriving in-system from warp drive might blow up the whole neighborhood around you.  Sort of a downside, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I am resolving not to be negative about this, though. This is a big deal. A HUGE deal, if it works. This opens up the stars to us. This lets us get off this rock (of which I’ve been an advocate for quite some time). This could save the Earth, the whole human race, or entire way of life. BIG news.

Don't worry--nobody is going to make us dress like this.

Don’t worry–nobody is going to make us dress like this.

But let’s not get all misty and over-the-top idealistic, either. The Federation of Planets didn’t come into being thanks to warp drive alone, and we’re nowhere near the kind of post-scarcity utopia Star Trek describes. Space travel will be as ugly and messed-up as anything else humanity has done, but hopefully with enough wonder and humanity to make up for it.

The important thing to always remember is that new technology is always filtered through the lens of culture, and culture dictates how the new technology is developed. It’s harrowing to me, for instance, that it currently looks as if we could design a star-system destroying, interstellar missile. All it will take for us to do it, too, is an alien species we find scary enough. Hell, a colony of ourselves we find scary enough would probably do it, and don’t think that we won’t.

Still and although, the capacity to explore the stars, as preliminary and theoretical as it now is, could mark a huge change for the human race as a species. It will be a giant shift in the political and economic power structure of the world’s nations (assuming we find anything good out there, but that’s a reasonably safe assumption). I don’t know what form this change will take, but there’s one thing I do hope:

I hope I live to see it happen.

When Does Futurism = Arrogance?

I am in the midst of reading Charles Stross’s Accelerando, which is a book dealing with the development of the Singularity. This is my second attempt at a Stross novel, the first being Halting State which was written in second person, which is an immediate deal-breaker for me. I’m having a bit of trouble with this one, too, and I’m trying to put my finger on why.

Sure we will, buddy. Sure we will...

Sure we will, buddy. Sure we will…

Part of it is that the main character (in this part of the book, anyway), Manfred Macx, is a sort of techno-bohemian philanthropist who has cast off the ‘shackles’ of capitalist society and lives by coming up with random patent ideas, patenting them, and then giving them away to start-ups who can use them in exchange for permanent favors. So, while he has no money, he has everything he needs. Skipping past the implausibility of this scheme or, at least, it being completely implausible for anyone who isn’t as brilliant as Macx, I get the sense in this book that I’m being sold something. I’m supposed to buy into Macx philosophy and think he’s really cool; furthermore, I’m supposed to get excited or accept the inevitability of the Singularity.

I do not do either of those things.

There is a pretty robust argument out there (one I ascribe to, incidentally) that suggests the Singularity will never actually happen. I don’t especially want to get into the debate here; a cursory read of the wikipediea entry on the singularity can give you the basic overview – draw your own conclusions. The thing I want to discuss here is the attitude that comes along with certain futurists that proclaim the Good News of this or that technological innovation. They often are as evangelical as any given Bible-thumping born-again, proclaiming the inevitability of their particular technological hobby-horse’s supremacy with all the zeal of a cult follower. Those who disagree are fools, or anti-science, or hopelessly misled (the poor things).

But then, you know, Utopia doesn’t actually happen. We go halfway. We find a hiccup in plan, a hole in the road. The bridge is out on this track to fairy land, folks. You’ll have to go around.

This is what happened with Steam Power, and with electricity after that, and with nuclear power after that, and with psychology, and communism, and fascism, and pretty much everything else the human race has ever come up with to solve all the world’s problems. This is not to say that they were Bad Ideas or that we ought not hope to fashion utopia out of our innovative spirit – keep trying, by all means – I just don’t particularly enjoy having something sold to me before it’s been proven to work. I’m not going to upload my brain into a computer until I see what happens to all those guys who go first. Call me a coward, if you will, but I prefer to call myself a skeptic. I need more than just a schematic, guys, or a fancy sales pitch – show me your track record.

Now, I don’t know whether Stross is trying to sell me on the wonders of the Singularity, yet – I’m not far enough through Accelerando to tell. Right now, in this first part, he’s being pretty didactic, though. Maybe that’s the character; maybe Macx is in for some heavy-duty reality alignment. I kinda hope so, honestly, because I don’t easily buy utopian (or dystopian) tales.

“But,” I hear you ask, “How can you read science fiction if you don’t want somebody selling you their version of the future?”

There’s a difference between ‘exploring’ and ‘selling,’ though. In the former case, you are positing a theory and exploring it while paying attention to the audience’s suspension of disbelief and managing their expectations without overtly endorsing the future you create.  In the latter case, you are attempting to show the effect of technology on society as inevitable in this, our real world, and, furthermore, putting forth your work as prognostic or prescient. That strikes me as arrogant, because we can’t tell the future. We never can. Science Fiction isn’t the exploration of what will be, it’s the exploration of what might be. We must be careful not to buy our own theories, lest we think of ourselves as prophets; we aren’t. We are storytellers, and that’s quite enough.

When New is Old and Old is New

I’m in the middle of reading Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun (which, by-the-by, is amazing)and something about the mood of the whole thing has struck a chord in me. The age of Wolfe’s Urth (which we come to understand is some distant evolution of our own Earth) is a palpable thing. The dust and detritus of the half-remembered past seem to fill every decrepit alley of Nessus. The wonders of the past and the horrors of the present in that book are presented simultaneously, without nostalgia or sentimentality, really. Severian’s world, as strange is it is, merely exists; it is not open to critique.

The future may yet become the past…

On the surface, Urth seems to be situated in the distant past. We have guilds, headsmen, citadels, and old moldy libraries. The world is ruled by an Autarch, who is readily identified as a kind of absolute monarch, and our ‘fantasy world’ gears are cleanly engaged. But then things start to change a bit; Severian comes across things that seem anachronistic. There are technologies present that we do not, as yet, possess. There are oblique references to the Apollo Moon Landings (‘before the moon was green’) and other things, as well. You quickly realize that this is not the alien past, but the alien future. So alien, in fact, that you do not recognize the least part of it. Yes, they seem primitive, but the parts of their culture and technology that are far superior to ours are so ingrained as part of their world that they scarcely notice them as unusual. They lack the curiosity about such things that we would naturally expect.

Wolfe is not the only writer to do this. Frank Herbert creates such a world in his Dune novels; Warhammer 40,000 is a naked and brutish attempt at the same thing. On the surface, what such stories enable us to do is experience both the kitsch of the medieval world as well as the wild imagination of science fiction without exposing either to undue cognitive dissonance on the part of the audience. We get drawn into the world and accept it before we start wondering how it came about. By that time, of course, we are already hooked; we no longer need the explanation and, even if we get it, we are likely to be forgiving. The passage of millennia  enables almost anything to be plausible.

There is a reason he needs those giant shoulder-pads and big hydraulic fists, so that’s what he has.

Deeper than that, though, and the thing that really gets me engaged, is the way in which such stories are able to engage deeply-held cultural and social biases of what constitutes ‘advanced’ and ‘primitive’. We commonly look at technology as a linear progression rather than a fluid adaptation to social and environmental needs. We forget that the internet was not predestined to occur and, likewise, forget that if it were to cease to exist, we would continue along without it anyway. The day after Rome fell, the Romans were still Romans or, conversely, they had ceased being ‘Romans’ a long time ago anyway and it hardly mattered. They had a mess to clean up, that’s all. The passage of time shall erase all that we’re familiar with, but it may return from obscurity that which we have forgotten, too, should it be needed. Like all successful species, we are very adaptable critters.

And so, when looking at scifi/fantasy (or ‘science fantasy’, as Wolfe’s work has been called) stories of this kind, we find ourselves faced with the realization that our current reliance on (x), whatever that is, is not the thing that defines us, or at least not essentially. Those peripheral concerns change the circumstances somewhat, but not the essential spirit of what it means to be human. We will forever build things; we will forever forge new ideas and new inventions; we will always seek to make our mark on the universe. Whether we do it with a branding iron or a laser is a side-concern. The choice is not one of ‘how advanced we have become’, but rather ‘what method we culturally accept’.

I will close with a brief anecdote: A friend of mine who is very Italian attended an exhibit in the Boston Museum of Science showcasing artifacts from Pompeii. What struck him most was the display of women’s jewelry and cosmetics as well as men’s rings. He said he could have seen any of those things being worn by Italian relatives and friends on that very day. Indeed, his comment initiated a scene in my mind’s eye: A Roman man with a fat gold ring on his pinky sits in his coach, gazing worriedly at the spewing Vesuvius. “Angela!” He calls, “Let’s go! You can put your makeup on later!” Angela yells from the villa, “Michael, I’m not going anywhere without my face on, I don’t care if the mountain does explode!”

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Utopian Problems

Just how long can you go getting everything you want?

Pretty, but utopia is overrated.

The simpleton answer is ‘forever’, but you need to think a bit harder than that. Consider how human beings use their time at the moment. In the so-called Third World, much time is spent surviving – getting food, getting water, maintaining shelter, etc., etc.. Proportionally less time can be spent enjoying oneself thanks to the insecurity of their situation. Move up to the so-called First World, and ‘survival’, as such, is generally easier. We spend a lot of our time working to make money, yes, but we have more opportunity to entertain ourselves and much greater ability to acquire whatever it is we want, though that is limited by income. Still, when compared to the huge number of people in the world who make less than a dollar a day, your ~$700 a week job is pretty sweet.

Still, we in the First World aren’t satisfied – we want more money, more property, better vehicles, better skin, bigger muscles, smaller waists. We want the train to show up at the exact moment we step onto the platform, we want our iPhones to function while miles above or beneath the surface of the Earth, we want our fridge to re-fill itself with ice cream all by itself, and for that ice cream to be somehow healthy for us. These are, in common parlance, “First World Problems”.

Okay, so say we solve all those problems. Eternal youth and health. Unlimited fun and games. No work at all. No danger.
Cancer cured, traffic eliminated, energy for free, and all the healthy ice cream you can eat forever and ever and ever and ever. Then what?

In Utopia, we probably start complaining about even smaller things. We want to re-arrange the freckles on our face into a pattern more aesthetically pleasing. We want our dogs to talk to us in Scottish accents that are more realistic than the ones we genetically engineered them to talk in now. We think it’s really inconvenient having to hold our breath underwater, so we push for federal legislation mandating all children be able to breathe water.

So, eventually, say we get all that. Then what?

If you take away all the challenge, all the struggle, all the potential for failure…what do you have left? Iain M Banks explores this (somewhat) in his Culture series, and Arthur C Clarke goes through Utopian ennui in Childhood’s End. Others have covered it, as well. Even Idiocracy, to some extent, wonders what a society of near-perfect comfort would do to us. To my mind, it isn’t positive. It would have negative social effects we have difficulty imagining.

I write this, now, just as Johns Hopkins is discovering a way to regenerate adult blood cells into embryonic stem cells. It’s still unclear what this might mean for humanity, of course, but it has great potential to make the comfortable even more comfortable. I think about that a lot – and talk about it often on this blog. How much comfort do we really need, anyway? When did living into your seventies/eighties and dying equal ‘dying too young?’

What I hope for these technologies is that they aren’t simply used to make the wealthy and the powerful (in which I include most residents of the First World) immortal – they really, really don’t need to be. What I’d rather see is these technologies deployed so that all of us – all humanity – can live in the state of relative comfort that we First Worlders do now. I think this because, ultimately, First World Problems are good problems to have – not too terrible, but not so easy that we forget what it means to be alive, to struggle, and to achieve.

The God Particle

As you’ve likely heard by now, there’s been big news in the particle physics world this past week. CERN managed to discover a Higgs boson particle. Why is this a big deal? Well, my physics knowledge is fairly basic, but from what I gather, the Higgs boson is the particle that gives things mass. In essence, it is the thing that makes physical matter possible. This, as you can imagine, is a HUGELY important little particle. Without it, the world as we know it would not exist. Hence, it’s been called ‘the God Particle’.

In the Higgs boson, science fiction authors across the world suddenly have new and interesting ways to envision the future. Already, folks have been discussing the applications of the Higgs, and this is just the beginning. The Higgs boson gives hard sci-fi authors ways to explain FTL travel, antigravity, teleportation, and a bunch of other things without having to resort to the discovery of ‘handwavium’ on some distant world or the use of wishy-washy science babble to explain wild concepts. This is a really cool time to be writing hard scifi.

(Note to self: start writing more hard sci fi) 

You watch: the future will show spaceship cockpits to look exactly like this. Just to spite us all.

It’s always interesting to see what science fiction sees as the technology of our future. It is almost always colored by what they thought, at the time, was the Next Big Thing. In Asimov’s Foundation series, for instance, he present nuclear power as the gateway to things like hyperspace travel, personal energy shields, advanced industrial cutting equipment, and host of other things. Heck, they even irradiated their dishes to clean them. Today, such advances seem either irresponsible or ridiculous, mostly since we know a good deal more about nuclear power than we did and know that it wouldn’t be terribly useful in many of those applications, and mostly because the average person doesn’t want to die from radiation exposure.

Earlier than that, HG Wells used balloons to explain time travel in The Time Machine, theorizing that travel through time wasn’t substantially different than any other kind of travel–we simply lacked the technology to move forth dimensionally at will, just as man kind lacked the capacity to move in the third dimension at will until the advent of the balloon. Likewise, in War of the Worlds, the Martians arrive here in ballistic capsules that are fired from Mars to Earth from, presumably, very large cannons. This would demonstrate the Victorian era’s skepticism towards rocketry as a useful science. Oh, how wrong they were.

But, of course, this sneering down our nose needs to be accompanied with a fair amount of humility. We’re also probably wrong, you see. Predicting the future is never a good gamble, and what we think will be the Next Big Thing today might very well be a complete bust. Likewise, that gadget we’ve left by the wayside or decided to ignore (e.g. nuclear fission) might, in fact, be the very thing we find solves a myriad of problems in years to come. There is simply no way to tell, since science isn’t the kind of field that obeys deadlines or gives up its secrets easily. This is, ultimately, why I think all avenues of scientific research should be pursued. Someday, when we least expect it, the silliest thing we can imagine will wind up being the most important thing in the world.

I mean, c’mon, if I told you in 1982 that, in thirty years, they’d find a little particle that makes everything around you ‘actual’ and it was only found by creating a giant racetrack for subatomic particles at a cost of billions of dollars, you’d be skeptical. Then you’d probably watch something on Betamax, just for irony’s sake.

The Box With No Latch

New rule for human nature, folks: As soon as we figure out how to do something, somebody, somewhere, is going to do it.

This, to my knowledge, is inevitable. It’s as constant as the sunrise. Can anybody think of a discovery that, once made, wasn’t used? Some of them, granted, were only used for a short time or didn’t catch on or whatever, but some guy tried it out, guaranteed. If it turns out it was crap or nobody found it useful or something ‘better’ came along, we switched. Perhaps we forgot about the old thing. But somebody, somewhere was guaranteed to give it a whirl at least once.

So, here we are with this article from the Activist Post wringing its hands over genetically constructed/modified children. Two things I have to say about that:

(1) This was bound to happen. It will keep happening until such time as we find something better to do with our energy or, for whatever reason, genetically ‘constructed’ children become unpopular as the ‘results’ of this activity become somehow negative. No amount of saying ‘don’t do this’ before the fact is going to stop it. Delay it, maybe, but not stop. We only stop doing things afterwe’ve tried them out and melted our faces. 

(2) The article contains a phrase I find massively worrying. Here it is (emphasis mine):

In other words, these genetically modified babies — if allowed to mate with non-GM humans— could potentially alter the very genetic coding of generations to come.

Whoah, whoah, whoah! “If allowed to mate?” What the fuck is that supposed to mean? These are people, right? Granted, born in an unconventional fashion, but still people. They can mate with whomever they want. I don’t care how much you hate the idea of GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), these individuals are alive. They are (or will be, hopefully) living, breathing, thinking human beings. No Chicken-Little, Luddite, jackhole gets to say who they sleep with or whether they have children. Unless their children are going to be bursting out of people’s chests a-la Alien and running about eating space-bound shipping personnel, nobody gets to dehumanize them by dictating their reproductive rights.

Somebody kept Khan from having little Khans and look what it got us.

Science fiction has been down this road before, folks. It frequently ends with the super-intelligent genetically modified humans kicking our asses all over the planet, or the intelligent apes wiping us out, or we wind up building GMO ghettos somewhere and start setting up sterilization clinics and all kinds of other monstrous shit. Ugh! No.

GMOs are coming, folks. They’ll be here soon. They are going to be the next generation of pets. They are going to allow us to keep eating stuff when the rest of the planet dies and the oceans are empty of everything but plankton and jellyfish. They are going to become our friends and our neighbors and our soldiers and our leaders. It’s gonna happen, or at least science is going to give it a try.

If you’re scared, that’s normal – big technological changes are always scary. It isn’t going to be all roses and buttercups, either – I don’t intend to say that it will. What is most important about it, however, is that we do our best to utilize this new technology in a positive way. We should embrace it and figure it out and try to wrestle it into something that won’t be monstrous or dangerous or terrible. The best way to make sure that can’t happen is to freak out, marginalize, and rail against it. Then, the only people who want to work on it are the fringe scientists, the rogue states, the irresponsible corporations, and the criminals. That, my friends, doesn’t work out well for anybody.

Don’t Bring a Loincloth to an Armor Fight

This man should wear a sign that says ‘hey guys, disembowel me!’

There is a fairly common fantasy trope that bothers me. Take a look at the guy on the right, here. You’re looking at your fairly standard fantasy barbarian type. Twin swords, skulls and hides, bare chest, etc.. It is common for fantasy worlds to depict these fellows as the kind of guys you do not want to mess with–tough, deadly, and more than a match for any armored knight from any civilized country. The problem with this is, of course, that it is complete and utter hogwash.

As a military technology, fantasy worlds, authors, and fans often underestimate high-quality half plate, plate-and-mail, and even the rarely worn full plate armors of actual historical Europe. They are thought of as being too heavy and too cumbersome, and that warriors that who wore this stuff could be easily overpowered by a fellow like our friend on the right here, simply by dint of the fact that he is ‘faster’. This idea is inherently false and, while our bare-chested fellow might be expected to defeat an armored opponent, the odds are rather heavily stacked against him if, in fact, he’s fighting a guy who knows what he’s doing in that suit of mail. 

First off, let’s dispel the ridiculous myth that being clad in plate mail suddenly means you can’t move around. Even the heavy stuff wound up weighing about 50-60 pounds, distributed across the whole body. When you consider that modern soldiers are expected to march around carrying even more weight than that, and they can move around, it isn’t all that crazy to expect a medieval knight who has trained in this stuff more-or-less his entire life could comfortably maneuver himself with it. A soldier who can’t move on the battlefield is a dead soldier, and people didn’t spend centuries crafting suits of expensive armor because it meant they were killed by whoever happened along in a leather tank-top. Granted, a guy in full plate armor isn’t going to be scratching the small of his back and he certainly isn’t running a marathon, but in the relatively short-term usage it would be expected to be used (i.e. a battle), a physically fit man who had practiced in the stuff would be comparably as agile as a guy without the stuff. The guy without the stuff would simply last much longer and could run faster. This is, of course, partly why the guys in the heavy armor often rode around on horses.

This guy is going to kick your unarmored ass in a fight…but he can’t catch you if you run and would be an idiot to try.

A suit of armor isn’t clothes–it’s a weapon. Just like a shield is a weapon. It suddenly enables you to do stuff on the battlefield the unarmored guy can’t, such as, I don’t know, grab the other guy’s sword by the blade. Or not bother trying to parry, since you know full well this Conan-wannabe’s overhand swing is going to glance off your helm like rainwater (just like has happened to you hundreds of times while training) while you’re running him through the guts. Suddenly, your enemy went from having a target of your whole body to having a couple, pretty small targets for him to hurt you–your armpits, the back of your knees, maybe your groin, and that’s about it. Provided the armored fellow knows what he’s doing (keeps himself from getting off balance, doesn’t needlessly exert himself, etc.), the guy without the armor is royally screwed. 

But…what if the unarmored guy is, like, super super skilled?

Well, yes, an exceptionally skilled fellow has a much better chance of beating a less skilled fellow. Of course, if the less skilled fellow is wearing steel from head to toe, skilled guy is going to have to work his ass off to win. He’s much better off running away, hiding, and trying to get off a cheap shot when armored guy isn’t looking. 

One fantasy series that pays attention to the uses of armor is George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The Dothraki, for instance, eschew armor in favor of speed. This gives them strategic advantages and allows them to hit and run quickly, but in close combat is often shown to be very, very stupid when used against armored knights. Barristan the Bold in the most recent book proved the foolishness of not wearing armor quite clearly. At the same time, Tyrion’s mercenary friend Bronn shows what happens when an idiot throws on a suit of armor and chases a guy around the room without using his ‘weapon’ correctly. Had he stood there and bided his time, Bronn would have been a dead man, and no mistake. As it was, he had to work his ass off to beat that moron (who, let’s be honest, was carrying the idiot ball).

So, no more of this ‘plate mail sucks’ nonsense I frequently detect among fantasy fans. No, it doesn’t. It is a potent military technology that was only rendered obsolete by the invention of the gun. If nobody’s packing heat, plate mail (and the physical conditioning and training to use it) is as good as it gets.

The Virus that Saves the World

I wasn’t planning on writing a post today, but I seem to be reaching my limit for useful novel-editing time a bit early today, and I don’t want to leave the computer just yet, so I’m going to bring to your attention what could, maybe, possibly, be the most important thing ever.

Viruses that Create Electricity

Read the article. Read it, damn you.

Now, the article interprets the practical application of these little bugs in computer screens and iPads and whatnot. This is pretty typical of the technological culture we’ve been living in for much of the last two decades – we discover a potential new source of energy, and the first thing we think of is a way we can harness it to play Angry Birds or listen to Devo. They toss off the line ‘you could use it to power your house by jumping up and down.’ Think about that for a second, though. You could power your house by jumping up and down!

This could start to mean a totally different thing.

A self-powered house! No power lines. No generators. All you need are special floors and something to compress them. You have those things already – they are called feet. You might not even need to jump up and down; you just walk around, and boom, electric power! HOLY CRAPBALLS! And what happens when the viruses die or run out of power or whatever (which is bound to happen), where can we get more? Oh, that’s right, they’re viruses! They specialize in reproducing! It’s all they freaking do!

Have you started to see how unbelievably revolutionary this might be? Whole cities could be powered by just layering portions of the sidewalk with these critters underneath touchplates. Your car could run on a layer of bugs built into the tires – you only ever refuel when you get new tires! Capacitors could be built all over the place, storing up any excess energy the little buggers produce as a result of millions of feet walking around on them all day and, therefore, power the world all night long. This technology could result in the whole world, essentially, being hooked up to a worldwide hamster-wheel of electric power, endless so long as we can keep those viruses alive and cooking. This is incredible. This is beyond revolutionary, if it proves to be practical. Right now, one square centimeter is equal to .25 AAA batteries. This seems to indicate 4 cm^2 would be 1 AAA battery. A square meter, then, 25 AAA batteries. You can run a lot of stuff off that. Keep engineering the buggers, and you might get more. Set up a system by which the used-up ones can be replaced with fresh viruses, and you could keep this going for a long, long time.

Obviously there’s a lot of practical improvements to be made, and we probably will see this begin in small ways–like a touch screen or something – but this invention has enormous potential for the science fictional worlds we will continue to imagine. I know I’m building one right now. I also know I’m not alone.

Victory Conditions: Earth

Thank you for playing Planet: Earth. Thank you for sticking with us through the development process, since the game really is quite buggy at the moment. We promise to stop releasing new Errata and FAQ documents sometime in the next million turns or so.

Anyway, if you’ve gotten this far (turn 4.3 billion, or so), that means you’ve managed to build and sustain life on this planet despite numerous potential extinction events, including various meteor and asteroid strikes, pandemics, and so on. If you still have dinosaurs active in the game, congratulations! You earn +10 achievement points to be spent on new atmospheric events, including ‘fire rain’ and ‘rainbow lightning’.

The game, as you may have guessed, is nearing its final stages. If you developed Humans (which you should have, otherwise the odds of earning anything other than a draw are slim), they’ve now grown to the point where, within the next couple hundred turns, they will have consumed most of the natural resources left on the board. This, of course, is the Final Event. If you can manage to surpass this one, you will have won the game. There are, however, several victory options still available.

Option 1: Global War 

For every space on the board occupied by humans, you may draw one card from the ‘Violence’ deck and remove a number of population tokens as indicated by the card. If you can draw sufficient cards to manage to remove all Civilization tokens, you win the game. Bonus Points: +0

Option 2: Environmental Disaster

Trade in sufficient human tokens to draw from the ‘Meddling Humans’ deck. Keep drawing until you get sufficient flood, wildfire, drought, and tornado cards to remove civilization tokens as described above. Do this, and you win the game. Bonus points: +25

Option 3: Pandemic

This works similarly to all Pandemics, however you must generate sufficient Virulency points to overcome all human population centers’ Resistance Rating. If you can manage to make humanity Extinct, you win the game. Bonus Points: +15

Option 4: Multiplanet Species

Generate sufficient technology tokens to purchase draws from the Breakthrough deck. If you can play enough ‘Space Development Cards’ to create a Mass Migration event sufficient to reduce population tokens below the number of remaining resource tokens, you win the game. Bonus points: +100

Option 5: Pan-global Utopia (Non-Human)

Invest sufficient improvement points in non-human populations (we recommend apes, computers, extraterrestrials, or dolphins) to successfully gain Breakthrough draws sufficient to play the ‘Self Awareness’ card. Then, follow the procedure for Global War, above, but with non-humans fighting humans. Bonus Points: +150

Option 6: Pan-global Utopia (Human)

Invest sufficient improvement points in human populations to gain Breakthrough draws sufficient to play the ‘Limiteless Energy’ card. Then proceed to spend technology tokens as indicated on the card to move the human race’s Psychology Meter to a rating between ‘Languid’ and ‘Acquisitive.’ Then reduce population tokens to lower than resource tokens to win the game. Bonus points: +250

We realize that this is a bit unbalanced and we promise to work out the bugs in the retail version. Thank you very much for playing the Beta-test version of Planet: Earth!