Friday, December 11, 2015

Star Wars Countdown VI: Return of the Jedi

This is it, the final installment of the Star Wars Countdown before the continuation. After watching it this time again, I can still say that it is my favorite Star Wars movie. In fact, it was my favorite movie of all until Avengers 2 came around. With Return of the Jedi, this classic film trilogy closes with a timeless grand finale.

When 900 years old you reach, look this good, you will not.

Notable John Williams music debut: "The Emperor’s Theme"

When Return of the Jedi opens with a view of a second death star, one might at first be concerned that it is going to be a copy of Episode IV. However, it quickly asserts its individuality when it picks up both event-wise and character-wise where the film before it left off. Between rescuing Han Solo from Jabba the Hutt, Luke struggling to come to grips with his heritage, and the emperor’s master plan to turn Luke to the dark side and crush the rebellion once and for all, Jedi takes the story to a whole new level.

For the first and only time in Star Wars, we see a full-scale battle play out beginning to end, strategy included. The rebel fleet attempts to take the second death star by surprise, while a team secretly lands on the moon it’s in orbit around to shut off the shield generator. But the emperor has foreseen this, through the dark side of the force. Unfortunately for the rebels . . .

Speaking of this battle, I have an emotional connection to the forest moon of Endor. It seems like a very simple, peaceful place (usually), and reminds me of the wooded countryside where I grew up. Endor also has the charming and mysterious ewoks, who live their village up in the branches of the trees. Some people find them annoying, but I don’t see why.

But the true reason I love Return of the Jedi is the final confrontation between Luke, Vader, and the emperor. After Luke has gone through the inner struggles, trials, and temptations of the dark side, he must muster not only his courage, but his resolve and belief in who he is, and not fall to the pull of the swift undertow of the dark side. Not only does he have to face his fallen father, but also the man who twisted Luke’s father around his finger, the one responsible for all of the trouble in the galaxy. But if Luke were to strike him out of anger, Luke would become the very thing both he and the entire galaxy fear and hate.

Return of the Jedi is a dramatic conclusion for an epic series, and if Star Wars had stopped there, I would have been satisfied. But now Episode VII is only a few days away, and I am absolutely ready for more!

Star Wars Countdown:
Return of the Jedi

Friday, November 27, 2015

Star Wars Countdown V: The Empire Strikes Back

Like its predecessor, A New Hope, Star Wars V brought many new icons to the sci-fi hall of fame. From snowspeeders to giant walking armored tanks to the little green man with super powers, The Empire Strikes back successfully captured the magic of the first film and more.

Notable John Williams music debut: "The Imperial March" (this track may be more iconic to the franchise than the main theme)

Since we’ve already done a Countdown entry on sci-fi icons, let’s focus this time on something unique to Empire: how good its story is.

For the entire movie, Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO are on the run from the Empire, starting at the ice planet Hoth, taking them through a swarm of asteroids, to Cloud City on the gas giant Bespin. Darth Vader himself devotes an astonishing number of resources to catch one rickety YT-1300.

Meanwhile, Luke had left the rebel fleet after escaping Hoth to pursue his own personal path, which led him to Dagobah, where he meets Yoda, the ancient Jedi guru. As Luke’s Force-sensitivity increases, he sees a vision of his friends in trouble, and rushes to help, even though his training is not complete. But this was Darth Vader’s plan all along.

And then this happens.

That is more or less the crux of the story. The rest is pretty much Luke recovering from the shock of that moment. But there’s no question that the story was pulled of exceptionally well.

We get to see how bad Vader is, and it’s not just because he’s in a scary suit. He changes the terms of his deal with Cloud City after Lando fulfills his end of the bargain, and he kills his commanders for not catching one enemy ship.

Darth Vader must run through admirals like Edward Elric runs through prosthetic arms.

Oh, and there’s also this guy, who became an instant fan-favorite:

The Empire Strikes Back is many a fan’s favorite, though for me it takes second place to the final chapter of the original trilogy, which we’ll tackle next time.

Star Wars Countdown:
The Empire Strikes Back

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Poet's Gift

We are a people of symbols. We are wired to recognize patterns and make associations. It is the cornerstone of human learning. From our earliest days, before we can even crawl on our hands and knees, we make connections between the light patterns, air vibrations, and other things that our senses deliver to us. As we grow, the picture these things paint in our minds is edited, with details being filled in and sections being painted over or cut out to form a more coherent whole.

Our symbol-recognizing nature has one effect that is particularly interesting to storytelling: it makes possible the use of metaphor. Through symbolism, we associate all kinds of things: sounds, colors, ideas, emotions, and more. Many of the things we associate seem to have nothing to do with each other, yet somehow most people make the same symbolic connections. This gives us the groundwork to write unimaginably rich stories, immersing the readers in a precisely crafted experience through all of their senses.

We use symbolism to teach each other
different ways of thinking and feeling about the world.
        The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man
        –Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens

Consider the following two statements:

By feeling and understanding these connections, we can smith our words into sights, smells, and emotions to bring to our readers.

By feeling and understanding these connections, we can forge our words into sights, smells, and emotions to bring to our readers.

Interchanging “smith” and “forge” makes the two sentences feel different. The first speaks of the sounds of metal clanging against metal, of making words into tools to do things. If done well, the result is something to take pride in. The second sentence speaks of heat and creation, letting the words fall together to become a fine work, perhaps with some special value. If done well, the result is something to be deeply satisfied with. It is a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless, and such a choice of symbols can be the defining feature of a chapter, an act, or an entire story.

Symbolism is the soul of art. It is how the artist can touch our thoughts, whispering things into our subconscious minds. This gift of the poet is the key to the barrier between writer and reader, letting them commune at a level we may have thought impossible with mere words.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Star Wars Countdown IV: A New Hope

Not long ago in this very galaxy . . .

(Opening Fanfare)

It is a time of shaky peace on the planet Earth. Several deluded terrorist groups have attempted to sow fear among the first world citizens, with some success. In addition, the looming global threat of climate change threatens to drive thousands of species to extinction and make life miserable for human beings several generations down the line.

In the interest of securing a bright future for the planet, the Alliance of United Nations prepares for its 70th General Assembly, where the representatives of its countries will try to find peaceful and responsible solutions.

Meanwhile, in a small apartment near a Midwestern university, a young blogger excitedly anticipates the upcoming new Star Wars movie. In celebration of this film, he has decided to watch one of the previous movies and write a brief discussion of it each month leading up to the grand release of Episode VII. Now, he has come to Episode IV: A New Hope, where it all began....

Notable John Williams music debut (besides the opening fanfare): “Binary Sunset

This is the one that started the grand fantasy. When the boy in the desert followed the old hermit on an adventure to the stars, the hearts of millions were captured around the world in a storm that has lasted for generations. It landed science fiction a solid foothold in film, and lit the first spark of science fiction’s passion in my soul. Star Wars brought forth many iconic staples of nerd culture that have only grown stronger with the time that has passed.

Right from the get-go we were treated with the lovable droid duo C-3PO and R2-D2. 3PO’s insisting on proper behavior, based on his protocol programming, clashes brilliantly with R2’s mechanical “get the job done” directive.

Not five minutes later, a half-man, half-machine walks onto the scene in a black life support suit, with a mask that speaks of a life devoted to power and intimidation. He is Darth Vader, the trans-universal symbol of evil.

That's no moon.    
It's a space station.

The terror of the Empire, the death star was the ultimate weapon. Powerful enough to destroy planets, it was the perfect tool of fear to keep anyone who might question the supreme dominance of the Empire in line.

Next up, we’re given the lightsaber, the weapon of the Jedi Knights. Like a sword, but with lasery-like-ness for the blade. Everyone who saw the movie as a kid has dreamed of owning one and dueling some grim-masked bad guy.

And there is the Force itself. Though confined in this movie to the idea of a mystical energy, the Force may be the number one memorable aspect of all of Star Wars. A source of energy and power, with a light side and a dark side, the Force guides events in the galaxy and can be used to obtain superhuman powers.

Of memorable and iconic things in Star Wars Episode IV, many more, there are. If I were to write about each one this post would far too long. Here are a few more of them in one big Force-saturated montage.

It is hardly imaginable that one single movie could bring up so many things that have so thoroughly permeated the culture. Star Wars Episode IV has spawned not only five other movies with three more on the way, but hundreds of novels, comics, and video games spanning tens of thousands of years in the galaxy’s timeline. Heck, “Jedi” is even an official religious affiliation in real life. It is unfortunate that the Legends—that is, all of the media besides the movies and cartoons—have been de-canonized, but they still remain as a testament to the timeless legacy of A New Hope.

Star Wars Countdown:
A New Hope

Friday, September 18, 2015

Science Fiction Can Make You Smarter

It is no secret that many people find scientific concepts hard to understand. If you say “alternate reality” or “wormhole” or “gravitational time dilation,” they will shake their heads and throw up their hands because those concepts are entirely alien to them. On the other hand, science fiction fans can easily pick up on these ideas because they have seen some kind of representation of them in science fiction.

Take the Stargate SG-1 episode, A Matter of Time, where the stargate connects to a planet falling into a black hole, and the black hole’s gravity comes through the gate to earth. The details of what happens in the episode aren’t physically accurate, but it used the general idea of time dilation such that someone could spend hours outside the base while only a few minutes would pass inside. Now suppose I was explaining to someone who had seen A Matter of Time how our GPS satellites need clocks that run a tiny bit slower than the clocks on earth, because time passes a little bit slower on the surface of the earth than in orbit. The other person can ask, “like in Stargate?” to which I’d reply with a nod and a grin, “like in Stargate.”

Unfortunately, the fiction does not always get it right. In fact, most of the time popular science fiction gets something so utterly, fundamentally wrong that it is obvious that the writers did little to no research, nor did they consult an expert. One of the most common examples of this is using the word “dimension” to mean another universe of some kind. But a dimension is a direction, not a place. We do not live in a dimension, but in four: up-down, left-right, fore-back, and past-future. If we want to get to another universe, we might travel through another dimension or two—just like I travel through the fore-back and left-right dimensions to go between my home and school—but not to another dimension.

The counter to problems like this is to keep in mind that fiction is by definition not real. If one wants to know the actual theories of reality, one must look to science fact. To my great satisfaction, there are many scientifically knowledgeable people who counter sci-fi’s many mistakes by discussing the actual science behind the concepts. These discussions can be found in books like The Physics of Star Trek and Physics of the Impossible, and documentaries like BBC’s The Science of Doctor Who and Stargate SG-1: True Science. There is also a growing unification of geekdom and science on youtube, including channels like SciShow Space and PBS Space Time. These people have recognized that science fiction can be used as a learning gateway for science, and are taking advantage of the fact.

I chose to pursue a career in astrophysics because of science fiction. I have little trouble understanding concepts like relativistic time dilation, the various multiverse hypotheses, quantum tunneling, higher dimensions, and so many more. I believe this is in part due to how much science fiction I have seen and read, and the examples of these and similar concepts described and shown in these stories. There is a common conception that nerds are smart, and I, for one, believe it is no accident.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Those Not Like Us

Post-Note: This discussion was intended to delve into how intelligent life could be very different from us as human beings. Instead, its focus drifted to social commentary. The updated version can be found here.

Photograph by Bill Curtsinger, National Geographic

It has been a constant black mark on the record of humanity. Always present, from the moment self-awareness emerged in us and brought us to a new state of life above the animals. It comes in every form imaginable, an unnatural hatred for those from enemy tribes, those who worship different gods, those with different skin tone, or body shape, or sexual organs, or gender identity, or body markings, or clothing choice; those who don’t look like we do, or talk like we do, or think like we do, or believe what we do.

Prejudice: Fear and judgment of those we do not understand, of Those Not Like Us.

We are fortunate to live in a time and place where learning is praised, and when we look to history to avoid the mistakes of the past. More and more we value education, the information needed to understand and accept others increasingly available for people to find. Countless stories have been written addressing the wrongness of prejudice, exposing it as the ugly demon beast it is. Little by little, moment by agonizingly slow moment, prejudice is lessening its strangle-hold on humanity. But there is one more group of Those Not Like Us, one which could be vastly more different from us than any two groups of humans have ever been. One group that could revitalize the black flame of hatred as hot and consuming as ever: aliens.

Yet it is not fair to call aliens one group. The word “alien” originally meant another human from a far-off land. As more of the world became known, the people who fell under the label of “alien” became fewer and fewer. Eventually, advances in biology confirmed that humans are more similar than different, and “alien” was redefined to mean someone not from Earth. Now it is almost certain that intelligent life beyond Earth is mind-bogglingly vaster and more varied than humanity, so why on earth would we lump the entirety of the intelligent universe except ourselves into one group? Though the precise definition of the word has changed over time, its meaning has not; “alien” is a label for Those Not Like Us.

Common across humanity, there are physical traits, emotions, and ways of dealing with things. We take these things for granted, because although they vary from person to person, culture to culture, they share many key aspects. But intelligent aliens, having evolved completely independently from us or anything else on earth, might feel entirely different emotions, think entirely different kinds of thoughts, and view the world in entirely different ways. Music, which brings us amazing emotional connection and expression, might sound like garbage noise to them. They might not be able to make sense of TV and computer screens, which take advantage of our eyes’ ability to mix colors. They almost certainly will not be able to recognize or interpret human facial expressions. Aliens may have completely different senses and communication methods, such as light or magnetic field patterns. Because of the mind-boggling variability of DNA, as well as the possibility of other means of genetic coding like RNA or PNA, there is unimaginable potential for what life could be like. The possibilities of difference are, simply put, astounding.

Heck, we may, in doing something that we always do without thinking, offend aliens we meet. For example, if there is a race that communicates by pheromones, we humans could be unwittingly and uncontrollably giving them the equivalent of the middle finger just by our body odors.

Rose: "What's the emergency?"
Doctor: "It's mauve. The universally recognised colour for danger."
Rose: "What happened to red?"
Doctor: "That's just humans. By everyone else's standards, red's camp.
           Oh, the misunderstandings. All those red alerts, all that dancing.
Or imagine it the other way around; imagine creatures with appendages shaped like swastikas, or defining marks shaped like pentagrams. Considering humanity’s fear of the unknown and tendency to make associations, in such a case the masses would be crying out for blood, seeing these creatures as hordes of evil. Take, for example, Young-Earth Creationist Ken Ham, who claims that intelligent aliens don’t exist. His argument goes roughly as follows:

Premise: If intelligent aliens exist, they have no chance for salvation through Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: Therefore, intelligent aliens don’t exist.

You can read his actual words and response to criticism here.

Post-Note: I realize I have been unfair to Ken Ham and a large number of people who follow his influence. Previously, there was a paragraph here targeting Ken Ham and his followers, claiming that they are primed for alien racism. There is a big difference between believing someone will go to Hell and wanting them to go to Hell. From what I have seen of Ken Ham, he is a polite, decent man who honestly wishes the best for people. If he were to meet an alien face to face, I expect he would be as cordial as he is toward anyone. I am generally against editing what I have said in previous posts, but this was inappropriate. My intent was not to attack anyone, but to caution that humanity is not ready to meet people from another planet.

     "God bless the cactuses!"                          "That's 'cacti.'"                                 "That's racist."
This is where the speculative power of fiction comes into play. Fiction introduces new ideas to its characters, who interpret and react to these ideas in similar ways to how real people would. Consider Ender’s game (spoilers), by Orson Scott Card. The main character is born into a world reeling from an invasion by an insectoid race. The creatures, which humanity pejoratively calls the Buggers, swooped down to Earth and killed hundreds of thousands of humans. The entirety of human civilization from that moment on was focused on taking revenge and wiping out the Buggers before they returned to destroy the rest of humanity. In the end, however, it is revealed that the Buggers’ invasion was a misunderstanding. Bugger colonies are one organism with a collective consciousness centered at its queen. Killing a few bugger drones is as harmless to the creature as cutting a human’s hair, or clipping one’s fingernails. The Bugger queen who invaded Earth thought that humans were the same as she, and so killing a few would be no big deal. She had no intention of starting a war; she only wanted to make contact.
End spoilers.

In all likelihood, our first contact with aliens will be much less catastrophic than the Buggers’ attack. Still, it is inevitable that some subset of humanity will succumb to fear and cry out for blood, hoping that the creatures will be eradicated and forgotten so that we can go back to the old days of wondering if we are alone in the universe. Others will judge our newfound neighbors in different ways, and to varying degrees. We cannot change the fact that this will happen, but we can soften the shock by preparing now to receive our first discovery of alien brothers, sisters, and whatever else they may be, with a spirit of curiosity and forgiveness. Indeed, history and fiction already are full of contact scenarios to learn from and improve upon. We have the tools we need. If we ready ourselves now to seek understanding above all else, we may avoid the larger conflict later on, allowing us to freely share our knowledge with each other and move on together to a new level of civilization that neither of us could have achieved alone. Let us learn from our past and put aside our fear of the unknown, so that when we discover new life and new civilizations, we may with open arms welcome Those Not Like Us.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Star Wars Countdown III: Revenge of the Sith

As the summer heat wavers and the first signs of autumn cool peek through the rustling maple leaves like a memory just out of reach in a moment of nostalgia, I am reminded of the ever-evolving passage of time, and the ultimate inevitable approach of Star Wars Episode VII. This month, in the countdown series, we will be looking at Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.

I have waited a long time for this moment, my little green friend.
Notable John Williams music debut: “Battle of Heroes

Revenge of the Sith suffers from many of the same problems as the other prequels. However, being the final in the prequel trilogy, there was opportunity for George Lucas to learn from the mistake of its predecessors, and it does appear that he paid some heed to the outcry of the disappointed fans. In my opinion, the action was more engaging than in the previous two films, perhaps because in this one it was more directly related to the plot. The fan service did not seem as forced; I could have done without Chewbacca showing up, but I did like the Yoda versus Palpatine fight scene.

If you blinked, you missed it. Possibly the most underdramatized scene in the whole series.

On the upside, the movie fulfilled its main purpose, showing Anakin’s transformation to Vader surprisingly well. Though it may be a lucky coincidence, the lack of emotion or spiritual vibe actually play well at getting the viewers into Anakin’s head. Anakin can’t feel the spirituality of the Jedi, and neither can we. If we did not already know the Sith were evil from the original trilogy, this might lead us to wonder with him if the Jedi have, in fact, been corrupted by the war. At least, we might wonder right up until Anakin becomes Vader and starts slaughtering children. Then it’s obvious that he’s just bat crazy.

The biggest blunder of Revenge of the Sith, I would say, is the Obi-Wan versus Darth Vader battle. It was one of the key turning points of the series, the father-and-son-like battle for the fate of the galaxy. But to me it felt anticlimactic—all flash, no emotion. There was no buildup, no climax, just two guys whaling on each other on the side of a volcano until suddenly it was just over.

“I have brought peace, freedom, justice and security to my new
Empire.” Seriously, what got that crazy idea into your head?
This is unmistakably Palpatine’s empire, and he’s sure as the
planet you’re standing on not going to give it up.

However, even this flop of a climax can be seen as an artistic fluke if viewed from the right perspective. Consider what we would hope to see in such an ultimate fight sequence: both the good guy and bad fighting hard with their emotions, sparring and twisting them around each other like they do their lightsabers. In actuality, on the other hand, we see Obi-Wan try again and again to get the emotions into the battle, only to have them roll off Vader as if he did not even notice. Not only is Obi-Wan’s world crashing to the ground and taking the galaxy with it, but not even the epic battle is going how epic battles are supposed to. Hm? No, I guess it’s not a good enough excuse; it’s still lame.

There is one more thing I want to mention. The first thing Anakin does after becoming Vader is to ask Palpatine to teach him the dark side power to save Padmé from dying. In response, Palpatine says, “To cheat death is a power only one has achieved.” Now in context he seems to be talking about Darth Plagueis, the Sith from the story he told Anakin in the Galaxies Opera House. But Palpatine is both a Sith and a politician, a master of manipulation, an expert in speaking true words while implying a lie. Nothing he says can be taken at face value. With that in mind, I have a hunch that maybe, just maybe, the Sith in the trailer for Episode VII could be this one who achieved the power to cheat death.

And of course, here is a link to Michael Barryte's “What if Star Wars Episode III Were Good” video. I like his versions so much, that I have adopted them as my head canon.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Star Wars Countdown II: Attack of the Clones

As the time of Star Wars: The Force Awakens approaches, the monthly countdown continues with Episode II: Attack of the Clones. In agreement with most of the fans who took this IMDb survey, Attack of the Clones ranks worst on my list of Star Wars movies. It had a few good qualities, like the introduction of a new soaring and swelling orchestral music track, but the sacrifice of character depth and plot consistency for fan service was an irrecoverable mistake.

Notable John Williams music debut: "Across the Stars"

This musical masterpiece is clearly the shining light of the film; other than it, Attack of the Clones’s only redeemable feature was its contribution to the overarching story. It springboarded off of The Phantom Menace, taking the mystery of the Sith and revealing that goes is much deeper than the Jedi thought. Obi-Wan’s discovery of first the clone army, revealing that the plot has been going for at least a decade. Even though it surprised no one, the reveal at the end that Tyrannus, who commissioned Jango Fett as the source of the clone army; and Count Dooku, the leader of the Seperatists, are the same person was one of those moments where we could really see the pieces of the puzzle coming together.

Other than these two things, the movie really did not have anything to offer. It did not capture the spiritual vibe that Episode I had, and as I said in the previous discussion, the essence of Star Wars is a spiritual tone in a sci-fi world. The Phantom Menace conveyed this by the mannerisms of the Jedi Council and Qui-Gon Jinn, as well as by Darth Maul’s red and black tattooed face. The Attack of the Clones, on the other hand, was all about the politics between the Republic and the Seperatists, and the battle between lightsabers and droids. Character depth was virtually nonexistent, except for Anakin, who has to deal with problems similar to borderline personality disorder—probably by accident, as a result of bad acting. All in all, the movie is just missing everything that makes movies good.

The final major reason I found this movie a disappointment was Lucas’s unapologetic use of fan service. Even one situation, one allusion, one line spoken in direct reference to the original trilogy breaks the flow, ruins the immersion, and is tantamount to breaking the fourth wall. I spoke about this in my talk on Episode I, focusing on how Anakin did everything Luke did, but at a younger age, and I presented the Force as a reasonable excuse to get away with it. But in Episode II the fan service is mostly about C-3PO and R2D2—droids, supposedly disconnected from the Force. In fact, as I noted earlier, the Force is much less apparent in Episode II than in the other movies, so this time Lucas simply has no excuse.

"It seems he is carrying a message from an 'Obi-Wan Kenobi.' 
Master Anakin, does that name mean anything to you?"No.
Cut that scene. In fact, cut 3PO from the whole movie; he ruins

the immersion. You know what? Cut both droids from the whole

prequel trilogy. I love the two of them as much as any fan, but

all they do is create plot holes and make the universe look small.

In response to Attack of the Clones’s half-hearted flop, Michael Barryte took the bare bones of the story and crafted his own version of it, like he did for The Phantom Menace. I think his version of Episode II would not only be better than the movie, but be better than most of the movies I have seen. You can watch his YouTube video by clicking here.

Star Wars Countdown:
Attack of the Clones

Friday, July 17, 2015

Choosing a Canvas: Books

We’ve all had a time when we went with high expectations to see a movie. As the opening scene appeared, however, we felt a twinge of disappointment, which repeated itself throughout the whole showing, and at the end, led us to say, “The book was better.” Of course, by the phenomenon of nostalgia this could be simply because we read the book first, but it could also be because the story really does work better in written form. If we allow ourselves to experience stories in many forms, giving ourselves a broad perspective, it becomes obvious that the right medium must be chosen to tell any story, whether it be a book, a movie, a video game, or a play. That is why I started this new series called Choosing a Canvas, in which I’ll pick a storytelling medium and discuss its unique features and drawbacks and what kind of stories are best told in its form. The topic of today is books.

When I pick up a book, it feels to me like I’m holding a treasure in my hands, its hundreds of pages containing an accumulation of someone else’s imagination, creative thoughts and ideas, emotional wellsprings, currents, and tides. Before I even lift the cover I feel it, as if the magic aura of the story has seeped out from between the pages and osmosed through the skin of my hands into my body. Though I sometimes have similar types of experiences when I hold other forms of story, such as movies or video games, none is nearly as significant as what comes from holding a book.

A book uses only words, which is both its greatest drawback and its greatest strength. Words cannot show you with sights or sounds what is happening like a movie does, but they can paint the picture in your imagination. Words are not restricted to these two perceptions, but can present touch, smells, thoughts, and even emotions, not only in the meanings of the words, the sentences and contexts they are found in, but also at a deeper level in the subtleties between the lines. The specific sounds chosen can set the stage, the mood molded by writer’s word the way a melody breathes, or rises, or roars like a raging typhoon whipping through your core. Words are the single major tool books can use, and the best books wield that tool with the power to shake the earth.

 A book is easy to take with you. Books have no sound, so even though it is easy to get lost in their worlds of imagination, a tiny part of your mind is able to remain aware of your surroundings so you can react appropriately to things happening around you. By using bookmarks, you can stop and start whenever you want, as well as keep track of the places of quotes you want to remember. Books last longer than movies, giving you time to take in each scene, and allowing for fleshed-out descriptions and explanations. You can read a book at your own pace, taking extra time to savor a scene that resonates with you, or to try to figure out if the part you are reading is foreshadowing something. You can also skim over the parts that bore you.

The stories that work best as books are stories that focus on the emotions, thoughts, and experiences of the main characters, as words can craft an empathetic bond between reader and character like nothing else can—not even music. Medieval fantasy works very well in the form of books, partly because books would have been the only medium available to record the stories in the time period which they take place, and partly because fantasy is usually built upon a system of magic, which is founded in an emotional-spiritual basis.

Cover art of Wizard's First Rule, by Terry Goodkind
I have found some of my favorite, most emotionally-touching, thought-inspiring stories in books, namely The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss, and Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. I also enjoy many of the Star Wars Legends books that take place after the movies. As a child, I read many 100-200 page books, including young adult versions of classics like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I have also found gems like The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Books have given me so much pleasure, joy, and food for thought that I have made it a goal of my life to publish at least a few science fiction novels, built upon the knowledge I have gained training as a scientist. Though a picture may be worth a thousand words, a book is worth a thousand pictures.

Choosing a Canvas:
Video Games

Friday, July 10, 2015

There Could Be a Star Wars-Scale Galactic Republic in the Milky Way

According to legend, the events of Star Wars happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But what if I told you that there could be a Star Wars-scale galactic republic right here in our own Milky Way galaxy?

See that blank spot on the left? That could be us.
If there were a civilization spread throughout our own galaxy, you might think we would have noticed it by now. After all, such a civilization would be zipping around through hyperspace, sending messages, and all-around being busy doing things that intelligent life does. Surely if we with our present-day technology can figure out the age and size of the entire universe, we should know our own back yard pretty well. However, we really don’t; when it comes to faraway objects, the bigger something is, the easier it is to see. Even with the Hubble space telescope, besides our sun there is only one star, Betelgeuse, big enough and close enough to be resolved as a disk instead of a singular point, so we are far away from being able to see extrasolar planets directly. On the other hand, we can detect planets indirectly by observing their effects on their host stars. We all know that a star exerts gravitational force on its planet, but the planet also exerts gravitational force on the star. Both the star and the planet orbit their combined center of gravity, which is almost, but not quite, the center of the star. The motion of the star causes its light to shift frequency ever so slightly. The Kepler space telescope was designed specifically to measure these shifts, and it has found over 1,000 planets to date, but Kepler is just barely not sensitive enough to detect earth-sized planets in stars’ habitable zones, so we really don’t know how common they are.

All stars have a "habitable zone," a distance where the temperature is
right for liquid water.
Image credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln,
To appreciate why detecting habitable planets is so difficult, we need to look at some numbers. First, the speed of light. Light goes so fast, that with a proper mirror system light could travel around the circumference of the earth 7 times in one second. The nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, on the other hand, is over 4 light years away. That means it takes light four years to get from there to here, and anything we see in that light happened four years ago. And that is only the beginning; the farthest stars in the galaxy are 75,000 light years away. It is no wonder, then, that it is difficult to find earthlike planets!

Note: from here on, I will be using order of magnitude estimation math. It is not very precise, but it is useful for hypothesizing.

But if there are advanced alien races, we reason, we might be able to pick up their radio signals. This is the idea behind SETI, the Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence, which uses a radio telescope array to scour the skies for radio transmissions from other star systems. So far, they have found nothing (if they had, you would know; it would be on every news headline around the world). Does this mean that there are no radio-broadcasting aliens out there? Not exactly. We should note that we have only been using radio signals to communicate for 100 years, and there is no telling how long an alien civilization may have been doing so. Radio waves are a kind of light, so they take as long to get to us as the distance in light years the star system they came from is. This means in order for us to detect an alien signal today, a civilization 10 light years away must have been using radio communication for at least 10 years, a civilization 100 light years away for 100 years, a civilization 1,000 years away for 1,000 years, and so on. In addition, SETI has limited sensitivity and has only been able to monitor around 1,000 stars, and only a few at one time. With SETI’s limitations it is discouraging, but not surprising that we have not found any sign of alien intelligence yet.

But even noting how hard it is to find habitable planets and intelligent life, we are talking about Star Wars here. Doesn’t the Republic span the entire galaxy, and therefore if it existed it would have a presence close to and around us? Not necessarily. I could not find a canonical figure for how many planets the Republic had, but sources seem to agree it was on the order of 50,000,000. Does this number work with the possible number of habitable planets with intelligent life in the Milky Way? Recall that SETI has searched over 1,000 star systems with no luck, but that only allows us to conclude that the density of inhabited systems near us is less than 1/1,000. The density of habitable planets may be much higher, and it would stand to reason that a Galactic Republic would terraform and colonize all habitable planets within reach. On the other hand, we must account for the fact that billions of stars near the galactic core are uninhabitable, so we will go with 1/1000 as the average over the whole galaxy anyway. Our galaxy has between 200 billion and 400 billion stars, so that gives us 200 million habitable planets, around 4 times more than the number of planets in the Republic. Thus a Milky Way Republic would only need to take up a fourth of the galaxy.

What about age? Could the Milky Way Republic be as old as The Star Wars Republic, yet its communication signals not have reached us yet? The Star Wars Republic was 25,000 years old by the time of the movies, so to be on the safe side let’s say that if a similar Milky Way Republic exists, the nearest planet that is a part of it would have to be over 25,000 light years away. Coincidentally, that is about as far as it is from Earth to the galactic core, the entire Milky Way being 100,000 light years across. This eliminates the region near Earth, about 1/3 of the galaxy, which leaves 2/3 of the galaxy remaining, which we estimate reduces to 2/5 when we eliminate the core. Remember, the Republic would only take up 1/4 of the galaxy, so if it is concentrated on the far side of the Milky Way, we have no problem.

Home sweet home
Despite the fact that our best efforts to search the cosmos for extraterrestrial life have so far turned up empty, the sheer size of the Milky Way and the distances between stars provide a task so great that even with our sophisticated technology we have barely been able to poke a dent in the galaxy. As such, with hundreds of millions of possibly habitable planets beyond our range of detection, it is not impossible that a Galactic Republic of the same size and age as that found in Star Wars could exist right this moment somewhere in our own Milky Way.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Four Types of Magic

Magic series:
Four Types of Magic
What is Not Science?
What if Nothing is Real?

Those of you who have been following me know by now that there are two genres of fiction that I especially like: fantasy and science fiction. Setting aside for the moment hard science fiction (or as I like to call it, true science fiction), both of these genres include incredible devices, inexplicable phenomena, and characters with extraordinary abilities. The only difference between the two genres is that fantasy claims that these are a result of something called “magic,” while science fiction insists that it is not magic. The fact that the two systems cannot be otherwise told apart is exactly what sci-fi author Arthur C . Clarke meant when he said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When I first heard this, I agreed. But within the past two years, as I was thinking about this topic, I was suddenly baffled. What was this “magic” that kept coming up, and why was it so important for characters from advanced civilizations, like the Doctor, to insist that it was not?

To find the answer, I looked at why and how writers use magic (or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Magic”) in their stories. The general trend, I have found, is that it brings with it the deep sense of wonder and/or fear that comes with a mystery that appears to have no solution or explanation. But this sense can also be achieved by naturalistic means, by simply withholding understanding from the characters and readers. For example, when Stargate Atlantis introduces the Wraith, they appear to have supernatural abilities, but it is later revealed to be simply a feature of their biology. So why call something “magic” at all? Is it simply a cop-out, an excuse to sweep technical details under the rug? No, the idea of something called “magic” is exciting, and so doing so can be a powerful tool in story writing. So that brings us back to the original question, what is magic? As I looked at the ways various writers use the word, I have come to the realization that the reason it was so confusing is that there is a variety of different things that people mean when they say “magic.” In an attempt to break down the complexity, I have grouped magic into four types: functional, supernatural, natural, and sympathetic.

Functional Magic

In order to understand the first category, functional magic, we need to understand the relationship between function and existence. Let’s look at the difference between a real object, a cell phone, and an imaginary object of functional magic, Harry Potter’s wand. For the sake of explanation, let’s look at a function that they both have: to emit light. For the real object, the cell phone, we start at its function and ask why until we run out of answers. Why does a cell phone emit light? Because the materials that are used to make it are arranged in a specific way. Why are the materials arranged this way? Because they have properties that can be harnessed. Why do the materials have properties? Because they exist. This is as far as we can go and still be talking about a cell phone. So we have come to the conclusion that a cell phone emits light because it exists.

For Harry Potter’s wand, on the other hand, we start with existence. Why does it exist? Because it emits light (among other things). Why does it emit light? It just does; there is no further mechanism to be understood. So we have come to conclusions about both the cell phone and the wand. The cell phone emits light because it exists, whereas Harry Potter’s wand exists because it emits light. The point of importance is in the order of explanation: real objects do things because they exist, while functional magical objects exist because they do things. The world in the Harry Potter novels is full of functional magic, teeming with things that “do something, therefore they exist.” Another classic example is C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, where animals talk, a pool turns everything that touches its water to gold, rings transport you to different worlds, and witches conjure up Turkish delight out of nothingness.


The second category, the supernatural, is the idea that there exist two levels of reality, the natural and the supernatural (sometimes called the spiritual). The natural world follows the laws of the sciences, while the supernatural follows only self-consistency and can affect the natural world by breaking natural laws. This type of magic states that natural creatures like humans have no supernatural abilities, but there are also partially supernatural beings—like the elves and wizards in The Lord of the Rings—as well as fully supernatural beings, like ghosts, demons, and gods. If humans or other natural beings need or wish to use supernatural abilities, they must get a supernatural being to do it for them, either by petition, such as prayer, or by forceful control, usually accomplished by a summoning ritual. In some stories, humans do have supernatural abilities, but they must find a way to unlock them before they can use them.

However, the idea of a supernatural world brings a question to my mind: what really makes something supernatural? If it is defined as something that is not bound by physical laws, then what is to stop every supernatural creature from being as powerful as God? If there are limits placed upon them, then those limits are just another form of natural law, and suddenly the supernatural world is just an extension of the natural. This doesn’t stop us from using supernatural magic in our stories as long as we don’t try to go into much detail about it, but in that case supernatural magic is just a version of functional magic. This brings us to the next category . . .


Natural magic is the partial replacement of or addition to the laws of nature. If you ask why a natural magical phenomenon happens, you will get an answer. In fact, a creative writer can devise a small number of natural magic axioms, and then build a complex, self-consistent structure upon those axioms. One example would be to imagine a material that has specific, nontraditional gravitational properties, and then imagine what technologies the people in that world would develop from it. Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson is known for his many “magic systems,” or structures of natural magic, the most notable of which is found in his Mistborn novels. The technologies of many science fiction stories would fall under this category as well.

Interestingly, by our definition, the only reason the real universe does not operate on natural magic is because it is the standard against which magic is measured. The relevant factor here is that the real world exists. However, it is shortsighted to lump everything that does not pertain to us into one category, so there is no good reason why reality should be an exception when it comes to natural magic. Therefore, if we wish to have a meaningful generalization, we must either say that natural magic is not magic at all or that the real laws of nature count as natural magic. Sanderson insists that his systems are magic, and I feel no need to disagree, so it follows that physics is a form of natural magic: the magic of reality.


Finally, we have sympathetic magic. For a sympathetic magic system, the world is full of consciousness. Depending on the story, a person who knows how or has the ability can extend their own consciousness to interact with this field of consciousness and do things such as move objects from a distance or communicate mentally. This type of magic can be seen in two forms in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicle: sympathy, which is similar to what was just described; and sygaldry, the crafting of technological devices that use sympathetic principles. And of course, we cannot forget everyone’s favorite example of sympathetic magic, the Force.

So there you have it, four broad categories of how the strange, annoying little word “magic” is used. I still think that the word is too vague to be meaningful, and we would have an easier time discussing the various different things that are meant by it if we stopped using the word altogether. But who am I kidding? The real meaning of “it’s magic” in today’s society is “don’t ask, it just is how it is.” And once in a while, when you see twinkling lights in the sky or hear sleigh bells on a cold winter night, then maybe, for just a moment, that’s okay.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Star Wars Countdown I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars is a classic of classics. When A New Hope was released in 1977, it revolutionized the entire genre of science fiction. It was soon followed by The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. These three films panted a deep love of science fiction into many people, including myself. Then, the cinema went dark for sixteen years, until finally Star Wars graced the screens again with The Phantom Menace, followed shortly by Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. After this, it seemed like that was the end of the line for Star Wars movies, as an extensive Expanded Universe, now called the Legends Universe, had been built up in novels, comics, and video games, and another set of movies would not have fit the lore. However, When Disney bought the franchise, they found a work-around: to retcon everything that was not found in the movies and the animated TV shows and reimagine the galaxy’s future. Thus, one and a half years ago, humanity was blessed with the announcement of a third trilogy, beginning with The Force Awakens, to be released this coming December. In anticipation of this new installment, I have taken it upon myself to watch one Star Wars movie per month up to Episode VII’s release and discuss it here on A Scientist’s Fiction, starting today with Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Notable music introduced: "Duel of the Fates"

Much anticipation awaited The Phantom Menace, as it was the long-awaited prequel to the world-rocking Star Wars trilogy. However, its release left many people with mixed feelings, and many others completely disappointed. As a seven-year-old I loved it, watching it every day for weeks with my younger brothers. Eventually we got tired of it, and stopped, and until this month I did not see it again. So now that I have matured enough to understand the plot and critique its elements, let’s take a look at some of the reasons The Phantom Menace may or may not be a good movie.

First off, we already knew what was going to happen before it began. Being a prequel, we knew how it was going to turn out, but it is more than that. There was only one surprise; most of the movie was completely predictable. It is obvious that George Lucas spent very little effort on this aspect of the movie, as illustrated by Darth Sidious, the mastermind behind everything, appearing in only the second scene. The whole theme of the movie was that there was a mystery, but knowing how it plays out before it begins kind of defeats the purpose.

The plot felt more like a checklist than a story. Manipulation of the Galactic Republic politics by Senator Palpatine aka Darth Sidious? check. The Jedi discover Anakin Skywalker? Check. Anakin does everything his son does in episode IV, but better and at a younger age? Check. Anakin meets a girl with whom he can later have said son? Check. Jedi versus Sith lightsaber duel? Check. Okay, we’re done. Much of it seemed forced, brought about by a string of incredibly unlikely events that had to have played out exactly the way they did, or Anakin would not have become a Jedi and Naboo would not have been saved. When everything that happens is a little too convenient, it loses the sense of genuineness that comes with the randomness of real life.

At the climax of the film, when the main characters are taking back the capital of Naboo, the Jedi are sidetracked by a menacing alien Sith named Darth Maul. But who was this mysterious adversary? He was given only one line in the entire movie, and absolutely no back story or reason for existence, except for the rule that there must be two Sith. For all practical purposes, he was just a bad guy with horns and a full-body tattoo. As far as villains go, Darth Maul was really pretty boring, existing only in fulfillment of his part of the checklist.

And everyone can agree that Jar Jar Binks should not have existed. Enough said.

But as I was watching, I noticed something. I felt a great sense of wonder revolving around the Jedi and the Force, amplified by the soundtrack, and I have to ask a question: should we judge this movie by standards it was not trying to fulfill? The Phantom Menace did not focus on storytelling, but rather had a different purpose altogether: apply a spiritual spin to a sci-fi world. With the Force as a mystical energy that can be used to influence reality, it starts to make sense how all of those incredibly convenient coincidences can happen. It was not supposed to feel realistic in this way. The Force is a mechanism for destiny, a recurring theme throughout all of the Star Wars movies. Darth Maul was meant to be a mysterious face of evil instead of a fleshed-out villan. He was supposed to be felt, not understood. And we must not forget to mention the soundtrack, which is every bit as epic as the original trilogy’s. All in all, I found myself taken in by the galaxy’s mystical and fantastic nature, and I enjoyed the movie a lot more than I thought I was going to. Maybe Star Wars Episode I does not deserve all the hate given to it, as it does what it intended to do—show a world permeated and guided by a mysterious Force—very well.

There is a YouTube video by Belated Media titled “What if Star Wars Episode I was Good?” where the host presents a version of the movie as if he had been an editor and George Lucas had submitted the script to him. I agree that his version would have been better. You can check it out by clicking here.

Star Wars Countdown:
The Phantom Menace

Friday, June 19, 2015

Flashing Lights, Giant Robots, and Explosions

Note: this was written before I started downloading and re-uploading the pictures I use, so some of them have gone away. Hopefully I will get around to fixing this soon.

Look me in the eye and try to tell me with a straight face that you weren’t at least a little excited when you saw this post’s title. There is something within us that starts growling, building up into a roar in response to fast motion and chaos.

If I didn't put something like this here, it would be false advertising.
Picture by Alon Chou,

Of course, I am not here to talk about metal men shooting missiles at each other simply because it lends to an adrenaline rush, but rather to examine why such content is put into stories, and what purpose it serves. More generally, I’ll be talking about anything that can be put into a story to entice the audience. There are many different possible instances of this, targeting different emotions and audiences. There is action, designed to spike an adrenaline rush, igniting a flame of battle. This is what explosions, weapons, and fighting robots are used for. The audience also will get a rush with the appearance of a beloved character or actor, as well as when presented with romance, sex, tight clothing or exposed skin, and plenty of other things.

It'd be hard to imagine a movie called The Princess
Bride without a scene like this.
All of the above can be used for the sole purpose of stimulating the audience. This is called fan service. Fan service is feeding the audience something they want and are expecting, like a car chase in an action movie, a kiss in a romance, or an actor reprising his or her role from many years ago.

I have stated before that I find value in fiction in its hypothetical exploration: how the characters respond to the unusual situations they are put into, philosophical ideas that can be explored, moral dilemmas the characters have to face, etc. In fact, I used the exploration of the hypothetical as my only defense against the social stigma against fantasy, seeing it as sufficient on its own to justify immersing oneself in fiction. From this point of view, is there any significant purpose to fan service, or is it no more than fodder for our ape-like instincts?

There is one obvious purpose for fan service: it makes for eye-catching trailers. Anything that hopes to be classified as an action movie needs to have an action-packed trailer with at least one fireball explosion. Trailers are movies’ number one attention-grabbers, and the only reason they grab our attention is because they are entirely fan service. A trailer’s sole purpose is to shout, “Hey you! Look, you’ll like this movie. It will entertain you, keep you on the edge of your seat, and fill you with thrills.”

Mad Max: Fury Road went all-out with an action-packed trailer.

Now it becomes important to clearly define the boundary of what counts as fan service: material that’s sole purpose is to entice the audience. Notice that by this definition, a huge battle or a sex scene does not count as fan service if the presentation of the story or theme is more significant than it would be without. Thus, there is a very meaningful difference between fan service and non-fan-service stimuli. As biological creatures, we humans need stimulation in order for a movie to keep our attentions for the whole two or three hours. As an example of good stimulation, take a scene from Avengers: Age of Ultron (minor spoiler alert). We could have seen Bruce Banner sitting brooding in a corner while Tony stark tells the team that Hulk has just gone rampaging through a city. Instead, the Hulk’s fury was shown onscreen, no stops pulled, and we saw Iron Man in his Hulkbuster suit trading powerful blows with the green monster. This high-intensity action sequence was not simply for the audience to see big things smashing each other and the environment, though that certainly was part of it. Rather it provided an empathetic understanding of Banner’s struggle with the monster within, as well as give us perspective on one of the overarching themes of the movie, whether the Avengers are really good for the world, or if they are ultimately harmful and destructive. (end spoilers)

Used in this manner, the flashy aspect of movies can also act as a catalyst for those who go to them for entertainment, exposing them to the themes and ideas. There is a high demand these days for entertainment; people want to be stimulated, and most want to see a movie that has action or romance. Of course, most people would also claim that they care more about the story and characters, but the entertainment factor is clearly a major priority. In light of this, we see there can be value found even in movies and shows that incorporate copious amounts of meaningless fan service (ahem Doctor Who) as a means to draw attention to the themes being explored in the work. And sometimes it is okay to make fan service allowances just because. After all, the best writers are fans of themselves too.

The takeaway here is that all these things are just a subset of unlimited tools writers can use. It is up to the writers to decide what they are trying to convey by their work, and to stay true to that point throughout. Sometimes excitement works into the story really well. Sometimes giving the fans what they want works, and so it is done. And sometimes writers will make a point by blatantly avoiding fan service, like how in Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear Kvothe glosses over his trial at Imre, which the Chronicler had been anticipating the whole time, how in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy the main character turns out not to be the hero of ages, and how a blogger can write an entire discussion on fan service without including a picture of anime panties. It’s up to the writer to decide what his or her work is going to convey, and then use the tools at his or her disposal to make it so.