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Whole New Worlds

As sci-fi fans it seems almost a given that we look up to the future and to space, daring to think beyond. Sometimes the beyond has an impact upon us – not in a Lovecraftian sort of way, but the sun and moon influence tides, and chances of earthquakes for example. At least according to nature, a premier science journal. But consider: how easily can you recall a major film or TV show, with the exception of Interstellar, that featured tides as a potential problem?

Sure, real science is advancing – the gaia spacecraft seems set to clear up a few mysteries concerning the milky way and may even discover hundreds of new exoplanets. There very well could be an immense variety of new planets, a la Interstellar from a watery world to an icy one. But, perhaps to add to the distinctiveness of sci fi, rather than it being a single, planet-wide biome, we could collectively consider more exotic locales and some of the complications from said environments like the moon tide example above.

So without further ado, three ideas for aspiring world builders to get more mileage out of new fictional worlds.

First, consider the tilt and orbit. It sounds obvious: tilt and orbit that determine, how much sunlight it gets, the length of the year, and where it goes, respectively. You might, again, think “obvious,” but the coldest of the eight planets in our solar system is Uranus, precisely because of its near 90 degree tilt keeping one pole away from the sun at all times. This is in spite of its orbit being much closer than Neptune. If the orbit is very elliptical you can get far more variance between ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ in terms of temperature.

Second, is its surroundings, namely the sun (or suns) and any moons or other satellites. The moon (or moons) and their mass effect (no, not the beloved videogame) or lack thereof on the tides, seasons, indigenous life, etc.. If we just focus on tides, for example, the more massive the moon, generally the more massive the tides – though they can be balanced by other tides generated by other moons. And don’t forget that the proximity of the moon to the surface can affect the tides as well. Further a massive sun also exerts its own tidal influence. As to the sun, its color dictates its temperature in accordance with the principle of blackbody radiation (more on that HERE). Loosely a red star is much cooler than a blue star, and as you proceed up the rainbow of visible color from red to blue the stars temperature can make a difference of 3000 kelvins – vastly affecting the size and position of the ‘goldilocks’ zone where liquid water, and potentially life, can exist.

Third, consider the planet’s surface and atmosphere composition. You could have a carbon planet, or silicon. Maybe the crust is like earth’s with plate tectonics, but if there are no tectonics, there’s likely no earthquakes. If that’s the case, then there’s probably not a liquid core generating a magnetic field – so how does the life protect itself from stellar radiation? Is there life? How does the atmosphere not get blown away into space by that same radiation?

On atmosphere, remember you need oxygen in the atmosphere for combustion reactions to occur (or fire), and carbon dioxide toxicity is a thing. Alternatively imagine a planet without a magnetic field thanks to a changed core composition, no northern lights phenomena. What about say rarer elements being common such as Bismuth – producing say fields of crystals like the one below?

Maybe these ideas seem a little strange, but that’s part of the goal: to highlight the exotic locales and fundamental weirdness of science fiction, to showcase some of the implications, not just from innovative technology, but also from where a story takes place. With a little more thinking on it, perhaps we can move past generic rocky world #871716161612 to a more descriptive place.

Imperator McAlpine

50 Million Shades of Gray

Ethics. This is a word that stirs up all sorts of lively debate, and the narratives capable of tackling it with grace and aplomb are, deservedly, some of the most revered in our culture. There’s a reason Batman is so widely loved and hotly debated a character. There’s a reason Star Trek is held in such high regard. How else do we explore such a complex topic if not by plumbing its darkest depths and climbing to its most spectacular heights? And what better a tool to do just that than fiction? But what really makes a work of fiction morally complex? What makes a character ethically gray?

We, of course, cannot hope to answer this question definitively. As is our custom here at Cowboy Errant, we like to look at the big, unanswerable questions, shrug contemplatively, and then present you, the reader, with the maelstrom of thoughts that entered our collective minds between our confrontation with the towering monolith of an inquiry and the resultant lifting of our proverbial shoulders. So, here’s what we’ve been thinking as we’ve pondered this topic.

Ethical ambiguity isn’t simple. By its very definition, anything morally gray eschews the idea of black and white solutions to problems in favor of exploring the positive and negative ramifications of a human, and therefore unavoidably imperfect, decision when confronted with an impossible circumstance. Right?

Well, kind of.



Oh dear…

Ok, so obviously one runs into a problem if you apply the idea of “absolutely no absolutes” to itself. If there are absolutely no absolutes, itself an absolute statement, then that absolute is, paradoxically, false, meaning there are absolutes, which then allows for the absolute nonexistence of absolutes to once again be true for a precious nanosecond before it once again negates itself and here’s a video of Gir’s head exploding as he contemplates time travel to illustrate the point better.

What we’re trying to say is that a complex and nuanced exploration of good and evil isn’t restricted to characters that aren’t basically good or basically evil. Superman, for example, is, when done correctly, a compelling character because he stands as a bastion of good among a world that refuses to be good. His views on morality are pretty immovable, black and white, but it doesn’t prevent him from exploring what makes good good when he’s pitted against a world that forces him to question it. Add to that the fact that when you pair him with, say, Batman, you’re faced with the question of how much power any one man should have. What gives Superman the right to decide what’s good? Why is he allowed to enforce his brand of justice? Simply because he can punch harder? What happens if his perception of good and the world’s perceptions disagree? Does he just keep trying to beat the world into submission? Is Batman really so bad for storing a mountain of kryptonite in the Batcave just in case that very thing happens? It doesn’t necessarily take a character who lives in a world of gray to prompt a compelling line of questioning.

And speaking of black and white morals, how ’bout Batman’s “no kill” policy? Sounds admirable. His “slippery slope” argument certainly has its merits. Once you kill one person for whatever you believe to be good, what’s to stop you from doing it again? How do you know you won’t become a cruel mockery of your own noble intentions, or the very thing you despise? You don’t. But, then again, Bruce’s seemingly admirable reasoning does, on occasion, only seem to up the innocent body count as his homicidal rogues’ gallery keeps wreaking havoc on the citizens of Gotham simply because he refuses to put them all down for good. So what’s the right choice? Kill one to save thousands and risk becoming like the Justice Lords, ready and willing to lobotomize people for violating “keep off the grass laws,” or watch more and more innocents die each time you refuse to compromise? Yeah, good luck figuring that one out. But damn if it isn’t compelling character drama, which is, ultimately, the goal: make you question, make you think, make you grow. Good fiction is remarkable in its ability to do that.

The Illusive Man 01 by John Tesh on deviantartAnd just to make things more intricate, let’s take a look at a character pretty widely considered to be fundamentally evil: The Illusive Man. Yes, he causes pain, mayhem, and misery with his reckless “ends justify the means” methodology. Yes, he’s a megalomaniac. Yes, he’s a raging racist who would comfortably see humanity subjugate or exterminate every living obstacle on its path to galactic dominance. And yet, he still manages to convince himself he’s doing the right thing. He still believes he’s acting in humanity’s best interest. To him, his loyalty is to his people, whether they want it or not, and that’s all that matters. And you know what? He’s not a bad man to have in your corner. Yes, he’s ruthless and brutal, but it’s arguably through the surgical implementation of that ruthless brutality that he’s able to give the galaxy a fighting chance against an enemy that would otherwise have handily crushed whatever piddling resistance the Council could have mustered. His actions, his organization, his forced recruitment of humanity’s greatest hero, these all served to save tens of billions of people from being melted into black sludge and fused together as a biomechanical monster hell-bent on wiping out all life other than itself and those like it. He cripples a key arm of the Reaper menace, and, frankly, it’s unlikely that the problems he solved would have even been acknowledged were their resolution left to anyone else. The very beliefs that make him such a cruel villain also enable him to perform acts of real good nobody else would have been able to, and it’s hard to argue with ten billion lives saved. So now you’re left with question of what would have happened if a man many rightly call a murderer and an outright terrible human being hadn’t been there to save everyone. And that’s precisely why Mass Effect sticks with its players. That’s moral ambiguity.

Data and an ExocompAnd, before we run out of space, we’d be remiss if we didn’t do the reverse: a basically good character acting in a manner one might consider morally questionable. Case in point: Lt. Commander Data, specifically in the episode “The Quality of Life.” For those unfamiliar, the episode centers around the question of whether or not a group of computers built by computer scientist Dr. Farallon are living beings deserving of the rights such a status would entail. Unfortunately, while mulling over this question, the crew of the Enterprise is forced into a situation wherein Geordi La Forge and Captain Picard will die if the Exocomps are not destroyed in an effort to save them. Riker, seeing no alternative, elects to go ahead with the plan, only to find that Data, acting against direct orders, has locked out the systems needed to save Picard and La Forge, arguing that he cannot in good conscience allow the Exocomps to be sacrificed against their will. He willingly uses up several of the precious few minutes the two endangered officers have to live to make his case, not knowing whether or not an alternative to the plan involving the Exocomps’ destruction is even possible, effectively dooming his fellow StarFleet officers to die. Only when Riker proposes trying to secure the Exocomps’ consent does Data back down, and the crew manages, with their help, to find a solution that even they find acceptable, ultimately necessitating the sacrifice of only one of the Exocomps, an act performed of its own accord, to save the two men.

Consider: Data was acting against orders for a life form no one but him was entirely sure was a life form, not knowing whether or not there was any alternative that would have allowed the two definitely-life-forms in danger of death by radiation to live, all because of his strong belief shared by no one. Very few really consider Data to be a bad guy, and, in this instance, he was absolutely correct in his assertion. The Exocomps were alive. But he didn’t know whether or not there was another solution, let alone whether or not they would agree to help. Regardless of how right his assessment of the facts was, he was still gambling with the lives of his friends.

So the common thread that seems to be running through our list of examples is belief. Whether the character lives in the gray or acts on absolutes, their ambiguity stems from the fact that they think what they’re doing is correct. In other words, characters and stories are often at their most compelling when they’re at their most human, acting not according to what is objectively right, but rather what they believe to be right, limited by the same narrow understanding of the truth any person has. Good intentions don’t just pave the road to Hell. They pave pretty much every road anybody walks, us and our characters. And the thrill comes from walking it with them.

Major Colonel Supervisor Guadalupe Ruiz Del Frontera

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Science for your Fiction?

NOTICE: Imperator McAlpine has the reins this week. Please enjoy!

Given that our preferred genre is science fiction, we thought that perhaps a little focus on the “science” aspect of it might be in order (we solemnly swear to avoid technobabble). So, let’s talk about education in science. Feel free to just read our take on it, or explore the links; there’s some amazing stuff there if you want to get really technical.

So! First thing’s first: math. Usually you need to go to university studying away for five years, sometime more. But there is another way to develop a grasp on the basics: open course ware – the closest thing to a college education, without the college. Places like MIT opencourseware, the open textbook project, or the open education consortium are valuable sources of information, diving much deeper than, say, TED talks or NPR. Other places to go consider looking are the which has a number of resources on other such opportunities.

But exactly does that all translate into further scientific literacy? Well, time and effort, which, if you’re willing, can be very rewarding, certainly considerably deeper than Wikipedia. There are other sites that allow more focused, bite-sized bits of knowledge – Hyperphysics (which is a great source for help with one’s physics homework), for example, or every math major’s not-so-secret secret weapon: WolframAlpha, though to convey the impression that it only does math is to do it one hell of a disservice.

But that’s more for the background stuff, the fundamentals. What about the studies, the papers you always hear about in the news, promoting some new diet? Or maybe this time some new probe, or some new chemical with groundbreaking applications, or what about another paper talking about how doing an activity increases or decreases your risk for life-threatening condition X by a certain percentage? Gotcha covered (sort of)!

We certainly can’t cover everything one might encounter when perusing the annals of scientific discovery, but we can talk about how to read an actual paper and some of the common risks associated with casual reporting of said papers. For example: in regards to percentage of risk increase, usually that’s not total percentage chance, but rather an uptick/downtick of a much smaller base risk percentage (i.e. a 10% increase in the risk of condition X, which affects 1 out of 100 people, would mean it affects 11 out of 1000 people if everyone engages in the behavior).

Exhibit A: Bad science newsSo, where to begin? Well, most academic studies and papers begin with an abstract which usually just summarizes the question or what the paper is about. It’s unfortunate, but they can contain such “weasel words” as “might,” “could,” “should” – all of which the media will happily report as fact with nary a mention of caveats or conditions (see image at left). Plus, some studies are pre-publish such as arXiv which has a number of such. Pre-publish means the authors aren’t always ready for a final publication usually because others are still checking it out to verify everything’s good – but, again, the media at large often reports on these as if they were finalized results. And, of course, the dreaded sponsored study. This one’s a bit easier to spot: usually there’s a disclaimer near the abstract to indicate it.

The rest of a paper is typically a body, covering the instrumentation or procedures used to generate the result. Expect to read about what equipment, at what temperature, and so on to serve as a guide for any who wish to perform a replication experiment – an effort to reproduce results and ensure data generated was not an anomaly. This is followed by text, sometimes charts, figures, and graphs illustrating the points in the text (word of advice: when you read, check out the labels on the graph axes). Lastly, you have your conclusion, often restating the results, and giving an idea of future leads upon what the paper uncovered.

But there’s one special type of paper we wouldn’t want to forget here: the review article wherein progress in a particular area, or a review of extant papers in regards to a specific issue or question are summarized. Alright, all good so far – but where might you find finished papers? Because academic journals are expensive, and have an…interesting business model. But there has been a movement to open those up through the power of the internet. Enter the open access journals such as PlosOne or here – giving you free access to top notch scientific research.

So what’s the big point? Well, with more and more science available at one’s fingertips, and so much of our society increasingly reliant upon it, what better time to learn more about it, to indulge not just in the fiction, but also the science that so often underlays wondrous tales of starships? Share your thoughts if you have any, let us know if there’s any resource we missed and spread the word!

Imperator McAlpine

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