Posts Tagged ‘magic’

Insert Magic Here

Science fiction is not science fact, and shouldn’t pretend to be, but it should have respect for the laws of science. It’s not that everything within a scifi movie or a scifi book has to be scientifically accurate, only that it’s scientifically plausible. Star Trek is a great example of this, with its vision in the 1960s of handheld communicators echoing our mobile phones, its non-intrusive medical scans being a forerunner of CAT & PET scans today.

Star Trek never pretended to explain its advanced technology, only to predict possible forms in which technology could plausibly be expected to adapt. We don’t have teleporters yet, but we are exploring the idea.

One area in which books have an advantage over movies is they have the time and space to stay true to physics, if the author so chooses. But movies have a strictly limited format of 2-3 hours running time, and this imposes a number of hurdles for script writers, challenges they often overcome with some magical slight of hand instead of following the science.

I don’t mean to be pessimistic or critical of science fiction movies in this regard, as they need to keep the pace and rhythm of the story going, but this often means a disregard for physics because an accurate scientific representation is inconvenient to the plot.


Star Trek Into Darkness, as an example, has starships falling from somewhere close to the Moon all the way to Earth in a matter of just a few minutes, instead of going into some highly eccentric orbit covering hours to days.

In reality, covering the 238,000 miles between Earth and the Moon in just a few minutes  would mean atmospheric entry would occur in the blink of an eye, and the craft would either burn-up or plough into Earth like a meteorite rather than crash landing intact in the sea. Ah, but don’t let that deter you from seeing Star Trek, as it’s an enjoyable movie, so long as you suspend your disbelief.

In the same insert-magic-here manner, a journey at warp speed to a distant star dozens of light-years away takes mere minutes in the movie, being comparable to a trip down the road in your car rather than a flight through the vast empty void of interstellar space.

The absurdly large distances involved in space travel present numerous problems like this for script writers, problems they often simply ignore.

There’s a scene in the latest Star Trek where Kirk is on the edge of “the neutral zone” talking to someone on Earth using a portable communicator. As Kirk is in the process of travelling between stars, this presumably happens at a distance of several light years, but the conversation is conducted in real time, something that would be impossible.

Perhaps there could be some kind of quantum-entangled device that allows faster-than-light instant communication (even though current science sees that as impossible), but between that an the ability to teleport instantaneously between planets in separate star systems, it does make you wonder why they bother with starships like the Enterprise at all. Using teleporters and quantum-entangled cell phones, the tyranny of distance would be reduced in practice to that of walking into the next room.

Ah… Star Trek… Once there was a time where if you wanted a little science in your fiction you could look to Kirk, Spock and McCoy to entertain you, even with a little hand waving on the side, but we’re not seeing too much of that these days.

Perhaps in the next movie we’ll see the script writers push themselves to stay within the bounds of physics and explore where science could boldly go.

Godless Heroes

Once upon a time, in a far away desert, a priest came to visit a girl working at her poor family’s farm. He asked her, “Do you like going to the Temple?”

“Oh, yes. I look forward to it every week.” She smiled as she fed an impatient nanny goat and her kids. “The Temple is beautiful and clean and quiet.”

The priest was pleased by her answer. “Do you study the scriptures?”

“Oh, yes. My whole life.” Still smiling, she drew water from the well and tipped it out for the thirsty peppers. “The scriptures give me a lot to think about.”

He was impressed. “Do you obey God’s Laws?”

The girl paused with an egg halfway to her basket. She gave the priest her full attention for the first time. “Am I in trouble?”

The priest gave a little placating gesture and a smile. “No, no. I’ve spoken with your family. They tell me you’re old enough and ready to take your first Temple vows.”

Basket and egg were forgotten. “What kind of vows? To become a priest and look after people?”

“Of course not. Priests are all men. Your Temple vows are simply promises to God that you will obey His Laws and his priests.” He noticed her disgust. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you faithful?”

After a gaping pause, she laughed as though tickled. “Of course not. Worshipers are all mad!”

Funny thing about atheists: We enjoy ritual and song and participating in acts of community as much as anyone does. Many atheists even have a ‘spiritual’ side – an affinity for the unknown and the uncertain that leads many of us to pursue science as a path to personal enlightenment as well as a career. We seem drawn to fantasy in fiction for similar reasons.

There’s a fair amount of sci-fi in which humans discover that their deities are actually aliens, or humans insert themselves into alien pantheons in order to control their behavior. There’s certainly an abundance of sci-fi that borrows heavily from mythology for its major plot points. And while there’s still a lot of work to be done in sci-fi (and speculative fiction as a whole) with regard to race and issues of gender and sexuality, at least pantheons and priests don’t seem to dominate every other space opera on offer.

Fantasy is a different beast. There are exceptions, but it seems that the default is to tie magic with religion in fantasy worldbuilding. Not that mages are all priests in disguise, although that’s sometimes the case, but rather in worlds where magic is a fact of life, often deities are also real. Consequences of this include an unfortunate dependence upon deus ex machina to rescue untenable plots, and a disappointing shortage of compelling secular lead characters in fantasy.

At the very least, there’s a vast and virtually pristine wilderness left to explore in fantasy. There are thousands of unwritten books about brainy little girls who can think and act as well as they can heal and hurl levinbolts.

Big Speculation – Fat Fiction

 More people on Earth are overweight than underweight. Yet the trajectory of human body size in science fiction and fantasy could be graphed with a line sloping sharply in the opposite direction. Where’s the fat? 

Authors, we’re not doing anyone favors by dodging the facts of life. Fiction’s greatest purpose is to address reality in a way that frees readers to relate to it without suffering it directly. We certainly don’t make our writing any better by preempting the fat (or dark skin, or women, or children). If anything, we sabotage our stories by depriving our characters of experiences that matter to real people living in the real world. 

Of course this problem has complex origins. Western fat bias is going global, and escapism will always have wide appeal, after all. However, I suspect part of the problem stems from a generally poor understanding of what fat is, how it works, and why it’s important. 

Here’s the skinny on fat: Every cell in our body requires cholesterol to function. We need fat to live, so there’s no point demonizing it or pretending it has no place in speculative fiction. Furthermore, fat cells – collectively, adipose tissue – do so much more than store excess calories. Fat behaves like the other organs of the body; it actively participates in metabolism, yes, but it also influences our neurochemistry and immune system

There is more to talk about than weight loss when it comes to fat. Isn’t it curious that different types of fat deposits predict different long term health outcomes? Isn’t it more interesting that one’s sense of satiety, of ‘fullness’, depends more on the brain’s ability to receive certain chemical signals from the gut than it does on how much is eaten? Isn’t it downright fantastic that, once upon a time, being fat was socially advantageous? 

When I browse a bookstore, I see vast expanses of neglected frontier. Even the science fiction and fantasy sections are narrow and homogenous. If our art imitated life, I’d see two covers with ample main characters for every one featuring an athletic lead. It makes me want to write in the gaps. To fill the void in our fiction with fact. And fat. 

Five minutes of speculation later, and I already have more ideas than I have time to develop: 

– Aliens make first contact and assume that the widest person on Earth is our leader. 

– A zombie epidemic starts with an appetite suppressant, and only the obese outlast the horde. 

– Santa Claus trims up and loses his powers, and is nightmarishly replaced by Rumpelstiltskin. 

– It turns out that the fatter one’s body, the greater one’s magic, but because using magic burns calories at a phenomenal rate, nearly all magic is applied to agriculture.

What’s your big speculation?

Mind Reading Societies

A common characteristic of “advanced races” in science-fiction is the ability to communicate without using speech, gestures, or writing, but with their brains.  Telepathy can be an inherent ability powered by “magic”, or it can be granted by implanted radios.  Though one has to wonder what kind of effect this has on their society, specifically relating to their ability to keep secrets or to deceive one another.

Some say that relationships, and by extension civilizations, are founded on lies and held together by secrets.  I expect that would be very hard if everyone could read everyone else’s minds.  If such a society existed they would either have to be completely honest and keep no secrets from one another; or they’d make scanning another’s thoughts without permission a serious taboo or crime.  In fact, one might expect a naturally telepathic species to be colonial organisms.

And as for collective consciousnesses, most portrayals involve each member broadcasting their every thought to everyone else in the collective, unless they’re all remotes controlled by the queen of course.  This shouldn’t be a problem if they are all born into the hive like ants are, but if they were individually sapient beings (such as humans) who joined together as adults their individual pasts might come into conflict.  If, for example, a married couple were to join such a group mind would it bring them closer, or tear them apart?

Granted telepathy, being fictional, often varies in its form and capabilities, one of the most common being that neural impulses give off something that certain people/species can sense at a distance.  That particular form would work best with the societal effects listed here but there are other possibilities.  For example a more “realistic” depiction would be a specialized organ or implant in the brain (maybe the corpus callosum or equivalent attached to a electrical organ like those in certain fish) emits radio signals in response to impulses in certain neurons, though it might be possible to learn not to send one’s thoughts through mental disciplines, or just change your settings so that only the thoughts you want others to pick up are sent.

Some possibilities:

  • Humanity encounters a telepathic alien race that can only read each other’s minds, human brains are closed to them except through conventional communication.  They have no concept of deception and cannot tell when humans are lying to them.
  • In the near future brain-computer interfaces are ubiquitous and allow full thought-to-thought communication between two or more people.  Someone develops a program similar to Twitter except that it posts thoughts instead of short texts.
  • Software that allows constant mental communication between multiple people is developed and becomes the next big thing, followed by a surge of divorces and violent crime.

The World Sings to Me

Calligraphy. Rebel Without A Cause. Heartbeats. Chaos Theory. Predicting heart attacks.

What might these things have in common? The 1/f Fluctuation.

From Wikipedia:

In stochastic processes, chaos theory and time series analysis, detrended fluctuation analysis (DFA) is a method for determining the statistical self-affinity of a signal. It is useful for analysing time series that appear to be long-memory processes (diverging correlation time, e.g. power-law decaying autocorrelation function) or 1/f noise.
The obtained exponent is similar to the Hurst exponent, except that DFA may also be applied to signals whose underlying statistics (such as mean and variance) or dynamics are non-stationary (changing with time). It is related to measures based upon spectral techniques such as autocorrelation and Fourier transform.
DFA was introduced by Peng et al. 1994 and represents an extension of the (ordinary) fluctuation analysis (FA), which is affected by non-stationarities.

Sorry if your eyes crossed about halfway through that, like mine did. That’s not even the formulas or anything!

Here’s the simple version:

The 1/f Fluctuation is a concept from chaos theory. The 1/f fluctuation is a pattern of attention that naturally occurs in the human mind and elsewhere in nature. It appears to be a constant in the universe, showing up in engineering, economics and the human heartbeat, among many other things.

It has been said that the pattern which is characterized by the 1/f fluctuation is a source of pleasant feeling. It is found in classical music (leading one to wonder if perhaps the composers were even more brilliant than we give them credit for!), certain brain waves, Japanese calligraphy, and the human pulse.

Recently, it has been used to break down what makes something attractive to the human eye and ear. There is an extensive study of the mechanics of calligraphy’s beauty, as explained by the 1/f fluctuation, among other theories.

The Science of Hollywood
What makes a blockbuster? Why do new movies feel so different from older movies?

Perhaps due to a natural evolution based on our attention patterns. Movies that miss the pattern might not last, no matter how good their plot or characterization might be, while the blockbusters, lacking depth and brilliance, continue to draw huge crowds.

Scientists have found several movies which have near-perfect 1/f fluctuation patterns, some in almost every genre. The Perfect Storm, released in 2000, Rebel Without a Cause, 1955, and, perhaps not surprisingly, Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, released in 1935.

I have to wonder what would be discovered in analysis of Hitchcock’s works as a whole, or Steven King, or any of the other massively popular authors, movies and music. Is this a determining factor in what makes a masterpiece? Or merely a chart-topping piece?


This is a science that doesn’t apply only to what is within our stories, but perhaps even the stories themselves, and their delivery.

If movies are indeed more successful because they follow this formula, then how long until Hollywood requires its directors to understand the fluctuation, and utilize it in their movies? Will music become a collection of songs based on 1/f? Can this theory be moved from visual and auditory experiences and be leveraged against print audiences? If the fluctuation was mastered, would that be the cornerstone of truly immersive virtual reality?

Anything for another dollar, right? But would this be bad? If the 1/f fluctuation is a fluctuation of pleasure, then would music become art again? Could book pacing be patterned for maximum attention? (I hold no hope for Hollywood, sorry…)

Within a story, the 1/f fluctuation could serve science or magic. Perhaps that is the pattern of Avatar’s Ewa, or a the foundation of mood-music on one of Saturn’s moons. If the world is based on a rhythm or pattern, could we change the future by manipulation of the fluctuation, or, if such fluctuations are fixed, determine the future to some degree.

Granted, this is all speculation based on a science that is, at best, confusing for someone who hasn’t studied it in depth. But any way it is looked at, it is fascinating to think that, perhaps, this is the rhythm, the heartbeat of the world.