Post Apocalyptic Prelude

Been watching a lot of short sci-fi videos (Dust is good, especially this one as posted before) because, I dunno, some of them are pretty good and you can skip ahead when it gets dull.

donut thing
Our machine overlords always seem to have the best tech. Which figures, I guess.

One feature of many such films is the Post Apocalyptic Prelude, the little placards at the beginning that give you text with enough back story so that the action can be fit into a 10 – 15 minute film. The better the film, the less likely a Post Apocalyptic Prelude will be needed, or at least it will be shorter. But that’s not the real issue I have: every one of these assumes the same brand of DOOM. The apocalypse is always brought about by this week’s looming evil – global warming, right wing or religious totalitarians, tech run amok, aerosol spray propellant, whatever, you get the drift. The post apocalyptic world is likewise dominated by similar evils, or, for those with slightly better imaginations, mere chaos.

Prelude
A typical sample. That I can’t even remember what the little film was about is kind of the point here.  A person with more imagination might wonder why and how religious fanatics came to rule.  What superior survival characteristics did they possess?  What was lacking in their opponents? And, contrary to all human history so far, those who eschew technology dominate those who do not?

I will never make a film like these, which show as often as not some seriously cool film making chops. But I am sure I could come up with a better, or at least less boring and more thought-provoking Post Apocalyptic Prelude. For example:

The world’s major cities lie in ruins, their infrastructure destroyed in the Cleansing. Sociology professors, convinced any sufficiently woke person could run society’s complex machinery, seized power and brought about destruction. 

Flyover, a mysterious land of near-legendary wealth and evil, stretches from the People’s Republic of Canada to the Rio Grande Marches, and from Stockton, California, to the Appalachian Mountains. Gripped with fear yet desperate to escape the chaos and hunger, a band of  city dwellers use the last remaining charge in their Tesla to cross the Altamont Pass….  

Ya know? What you  got?

Dinner Date

My beloved and I went out for dinner, a lovely affair at Luna’s, a local Italian place. It was very nice. We had this dessert:

IMG_3902
Pears in an almond cake, scoop of vanilla ice cream, and delicious sauces. Bonus points for presentation. 

Then, because we were both quite sated (and we’d split a bottle of wine), we walked a half block to Half Priced Books to get a little exercise. On the plus side, it’s a cheap addiction. I went through John C Wright’s list of essential Sci Fi reading, and picked up a bunch of cheap used paperbacks – because I don’t have enough books already that I haven’t read yet:

IMG_3908
It’s remarkable how little Heinlein I’ve read – well, here are 4 more. 

Even more on the plus side, these are all under 300 pages long – one or two night reads, for the most part.

Then, we drive the 1 mile home (would have walked, but got pressed for time). Annnnd – our beloved daughter (with help from the Caboose) had prepared this:

Yes, a homemade pistachio cake with pistachio frosting spelling out 30, topped with strawberries and raspberries.

And we were far too full to eat any.

The kids were very sweet, and said that of course we could eat it tomorrow.

I love my kids.

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy II

Brief status: I’m done with Star Trek and Star Wars. Probably done with Avengers, Thor, Iron Man and whatever other Marvel properties I’ve never heard of that they’re making movies out of. Haven’t seen a Bond movie in decades. I was done with Harry Potter & Pirates of the Caribbean after a couple movies. We shall not speak of the abomination that is the Jackson Hobbit.

Now, a really good trailer and especially really good reviews and word of mouth might move me – but I doubt it.

I don’t like to be talked down to, I don’t feel loyalty to a franchise, I don’t like seeing a beloved book bloated and mauled for a buck.

But mostly, I don’t like being bored.  I like being entertained. Movies are entertainment. Since I read a lot of history, I don’t find slaughter, mayhem and misery entertaining. I’ll go read about communists if I for any reason need a dose of that.

So: went to see Guardians of the Galaxy II with the family, for the simple reason that I found the first movie quite entertaining. Mindless fun, but pretty to look at, witty in places and well-paced. So, I gave II a shot.

Image result for guardians of the galaxy 2It was good. Not great, not perfect, but I didn’t get the urge to walk out at any point, which has happened a lot with movies recently. So, yea, good.

GG II somewhat avoided the main issue with sequels, which is the gravitational pull of BIGGER. While one might imagine that, having saved the galaxy, they’d next need to save the universe, or at least a couple galaxies. But no, they merely save the same galaxy again.

Instead, they went bigger on the emotional stakes, in all sorts of surprising, twisty ways.

 

SPOILERS AHEAD!

 

Unlike many sequels, most egregiously in the execrable Pirates of the Caribbean follow-ons, the main focus, the main thing made bigger, is the relationships between the characters. Between the usual ridiculous yet entertaining cartoon action sequences, which were kicked up a little, we get all sorts of moments where the characters come into emotional conflict, ratchet it up, and resolve them to a greater or lesser degree. The script is meant to be tear-jerking at many points – a pretty major departure from the usual tragic backstory/cartoon validation-revenge sort of plot characteristic of just about all comic book movies.  We’re supposed to feel sorry for Yondu – and it works. We’re supposed to buy Yondu and Rocket bonding and heroically willing to sacrifice themselves for the team – and we buy it. The sister issues set up in GG I between Gamora and Nebula need to get worked out satisfactorily – and, again, it works.

Thus, when the final boss is battled, all these emotional traps are sprung, so that we’re cheering and gripping the seat arms, wanting things to work out.  Yondu’s heroic death was a surprising and surprisingly effective resolution.

The effects were as dazzling as we’ve come to take for granted. The pacing was pretty solid, after the opening sequence, which frankly dragged a bit. And the conclusion was suitably epic and satisfying.

Now onto the less than good, starting with a relatively minor complaint. I was reminded during the movie of a story told of Groucho Marx. The Marx Brothers would take their shows on the road prior to filming. As old school vaudevillians, they wanted to work out the timing and test the material. Groucho most often got the zingers and put-downs, and he was legendarily good at them. But, as a pro, he knew there was no substitute for delivering those lines in front of a live audience to see if they really worked.

Groucho also had a whole bag of tricks to get a laugh: the eyebrow raise, the funny walks, the incredulous looks. So, when testing material, he left those out. If the audience still laughed, he knew the material was good.

I wish somebody would have run the GG II script through the same process, chiefly to field-test the body and sex humor. With a few exceptions, it would not have made it. It got the sort of cheap laughs hammed up things tend to get, but left me wondering why it was there in the first place. The exceptions, of course, are the couple times Drax the Destroyer waxed poetical about sex in his faux-Shakespearean-ish language. That worked a couple times. In general, it just wasn’t fun enough to warrant the distraction. Having goofy characters deliver the lines tended to get laughs the material itself didn’t warrant.

The greatest issue isn’t a problem so much as a modern foundational myth. The plot hinges on Peter’s biological father abandoning him, finding him, explaining why he abandoned him, courting him – and then using him for evil. His father killed his mother after he begat a child on her, for his own completely selfish reasons.

Such a plot would have horrified the ancient Greeks, who were no softies. A god seduces and impregnates women solely to create little demigod Herculeses only so that he may use them to do his bidding, which is the destruction of the world. He kills off the mothers, and child after child who fails him.

Finally a human woman, who he later kills with a horrible illness, bears the son he wanted. But a highwayman, hired to retrieve this final useful son, betrays the god and hides him,  and makes him into a highwayman after his own heart. The son later escapes the highwayman, gathers a band of stalwart companions and, after many adventures, becomes a great hero by defeating yet another god.

After years of searching, the god finds the son, and whisks him and his stalwart companions away to his realm, where they discover the remains of all the previous children slaughtered by their own father. An epic battle ensues, during which the evil father-god is killed and the world saved, but only at the cost of the life of the highwayman who saved the son.

Now, that’s not a bad story, at least not when sanitized as myth. But putting it in this world, even by means of a comic book story, invites comparisons. This is not a unique horror, but a common occurrence, metaphorically speaking. It rings true not as a cathartic myth, but rather as something we see every day: men using women, discarding them, arranging for the deaths of offspring they don’t desire. Then, if any child is found useful, he is loved exactly insofar as he is useful.

The fantasy of millions of children today it some combination of finding their loving father, and killing the monster who abandoned them.  GG II does the trick by having Yondu turn out to be that loving father, albeit not the biological father, and sacrificing himself to save the son and kill the biological father. Also, the years of abuse and mistreatment of Peter by Yondu are explained away: Yondu was trying to save Peter the only way he knew how, and, besides, Yondu had a tragic backstory of his own.  That makes it all better.

I’m no comic book nerd, but no superhero I can think of came from a happy, intact family. GG II takes the concept down further: a Batman or a Spiderman may lose parents (or stand in parents in the case of the web slinger) tragically, but they were good parents it was a tragedy to lose. Star Lord finds a father it is a tragedy to find. Gamora and Nebula had their parents killed before their eyes by – their stepdad, who is a monster they now want to kill.

If only this were just make-believe. Every child of divorce I’ve ever known fits into at least one of these slots. That a plot built on such disastrous and tragic relationships seems instantly believable is a frightening thing.

I left the movie having thoughts that were not entertaining. This is not a good thing for a popcorn movie.

 

 

Road & Reading Update

1. At 6:00 A.M. in February, Houston is merely warm and insanely humid.

2. Houston is home to the beautiful Annunciation Parish, a mere 10 minute muggy walk from the hotel:

Three interesting things:

  • Most of the people there were a) men and b) younger than me. Some were obviously people with jobs downtown catching Mass before work – something a lot of people used to do, but now few parishes in my experience offer Mass early enough for that to work.
  • They used the altar rail – kneeling for communion under both species.
  • Second sighting of the Ignatius Pew Missal in the wild (after Our Lady of Peace in Santa Clara)

My Southern California heart was deeply offended:

img_3711

😉

3. Travel means:

  • Sitting on a plane
  • Time stuck in hotel room.

Which means: Reading! A few pages from the end of Captive Dreams by Mike Flynn, which deserves praise and a thoughtful review, which, given there’s nothing on the schedule for this afternoon (but you know how that goes) I might get to sooner rather than later. And a read! Get your copy now, and wallow in philosophy, math, and genetics while you enjoy excellent ScFi.

4. Now, two slots east of my native time zone – I need coffee!!

Little Planets Found Around Little Star

Man, I am just a killjoy. So, let’s get the positive out of the way: it is way cool that 7 little – as in, not gas giant – planets were found around a ‘nearby’ in the sense of unimaginably and unreachably distant, star.

Almost got through a paragraph without getting snarky. Oh, well. Seriously, exoplanets are fun. If they ever actually find any sign of extraterrestrial life, that will be fun, too! But finding cool little planets isn’t the same as finding signs of extraterrestrial life. Oops, there I go again.

Let’s go with the NASA press release, to see Our Tax Dollars at Work: NASA Telescope Reveals Largest Batch of Earth-Size, Habitable-Zone Planets Around Single Star. Wow, the artist’s rendition, which seems to be required by law to accompany any NASA press release no matter how scanty the information, makes it look like what we have here are 7 very attractive and detailed – friendly, even –  little earth-sized planets!

An Artist’s representation. Of something or other.

That looks like fun. Here, let me play:

artists-rendention-1
Some other artist’s rendition. Every bit as accurate! Except maybe for the fish.

But enough with the attempts at humor, at least until some other funny thought strikes me. The opening paragraphs state:

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has revealed the first known system of seven Earth-size planets around a single star. Three of these planets are firmly located in the habitable zone, the area around the parent star where a rocky planet is most likely to have liquid water.

The discovery sets a new record for greatest number of habitable-zone planets found around a single star outside our solar system. All of these seven planets could have liquid water – key to life as we know it – under the right atmospheric conditions, but the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.

What NASA thinks the tax-paying public is most likely to be wowed by is: Alien Life! Therefore, it deploys the terms “habitable zone” (three time), “liquid water” (twice) and  “life as we know it” in the first two paragraphs. The opening ends with a suggestion that there’s a chance – a pretty good chance, right? – that such conditions as would make a planet ‘habitable’ are right here on all 7 planets, but: “…the chances are highest with the three in the habitable zone.” So, one might suppose there’s a better than decent chance of life on those 3 planets in the habitable zone. Pretty exciting, eh?

One has to read all the way to paragraph 11 to discover that the star is an “ultra-cool dwarf”, which, while it sounds kind of cool, ultra cool, even, has some drawbacks: such stars are so cool for stars that their habitable zone is very, very close to them as opposed to stars like the sun. Planets must be very close, in other words, to potentially have the right temperature range for liquid water to exist on them.

Such close orbits present a problem: “The planets may also be tidally locked to their star.” At the very least (and some celestial mechanic out there please straighten me out on this if I’ve misunderstood) this means these planets orbiting close to such a star would be subject to tidal forces that strongly tend to slow down their rotation, sometimes, as is the case with our own moon, ‘tidally locking’ the smaller body so that it rotates exactly once per orbit. Sometimes, as with the roughly similar-sized Charon and Pluto, *both* bodies get tidally locked. Sometimes – and I don’t think this is very well understood (1) – the smaller body will fall into some sort of resonance period – 3 revolutions for every 2 orbits, as is the case with Mercury.

Full tidal locking would result in a planet with one relatively scorching side and one freezing side. If there were an atmosphere, it would tend to heat up and expand on the sunward side, and flow to the night side, where it would cool and maybe even freeze. If liquid water evaporated, it would suffer the same fate. I would imagine that, over time, like a few million years, the atmosphere would get thinner and thinner on the sunlit side until the ice on the dark side could evaporate into space – atmosphere and ice would be lost.

Be that as it may, a tidally locked planet seems very unlikely to be ‘habitable’ if we mean ‘life as we know it could live and develop there.’ (2)  Like the economist with one foot on fire and one foot in a block of ice, on average things might be OK, but in practice they are not. The situation would be more complicated but not much better on any planets with resonance periods like Mercury – really slow rotational periods allow the sunward side to get hotter and the night side to get colder than a quicker rotation, which could result in the same situation as fully locker planets – it might just take longer. (3)

Enough of my pessimism. I can only think of one tidally locked planet in SciFi, a throw-away world in the third (I think) Foundation book, with stations on the thin twilight zone. I’m sure other have done it, too. It would much fun to make up a way, somehow, that an advanced civilization could develop on such a world….

But don’t hold your breath over TRAPPIST-1, even if that’s a pretty cool name.

  1. Meaning: I’ve given it a shot, but don’t understand it as well as I’d like. In a bit of astronomy/egomaniacal irony, the entire Universe revolves around ME! The Omphalos Wikipedia: “Mercury is tidally or gravitationally locked with the Sun in a 3:2 resonance,[15] and rotates in a way that is unique in the Solar System. As seen relative to the fixed stars, it rotates on its axis exactly three times for every two revolutions it makes around the Sun.[a][16] As seen from the Sun, in a frame of reference that rotates with the orbital motion, it appears to rotate only once every two Mercurian years. An observer on Mercury would therefore see only one day every two years.”
  2. This is granting the as yet unevidenced principle that life will just ‘arise’ whenever conditions are ‘right’, given enough time. Let’s see example #2 of life – you know, extraterrestrial life – before we start generalizing principles, shall we?
  3. Some of the other articles I perused called ultra cool dwarf stars ‘overlooked’. I kind of doubt that – you’d focus on stars around the size of the sun, because that’s where planets can end up in the Goldilocks Zone without getting tidally locked – as we know from our own planet.  Planets around much smaller stars will have that problem; much bigger stars tend to blow up well within the several billion years it is assumed to take for life to develop. So, if you’re looking for another earth, you’d look around stars that look like another sun.

 

Friday Sci Fi Questions:

Asking for a friend. Not at all tipping my hand about things that may or may not be in The Novel That Shall Not Be Named, for which I’m doing detailing/clean up on the science aspects of the major plot points. (I suppose if I were better read in Sci Fi, I’d know the answer to these.  But I’m not.)

Image result for ion cannon
Yes, deploying a Star Wars ion cannon picture in a blog post asking science questions. It’s like, ironic or something. But – well? Does that blast keep going forever if it misses the Star Destroyer? Until it hits something else? 
  1. Ion trails: (this one really is just idle curiosity) Would not using an ion drive of any sort leave a trail through space that is sorta like long-lived invisible razor wire? A strong ion beam could saw somebody in half – could it saw somebody in half a light year away? So: is there some natural process – other than running into something – that mitigates this? I start to wonder if multiple ships headed for the same destination using some sort of ion drive would not eventually create a hazard. Sure, space is, as the Hitchhiker’s Guide tells us, very, very big – but if ships are leaving from the same place and going to the same destination, would not this be an issue, eventually, even allowing for proper motion?
  2. One thing that’s always bothered me about nanobots and even larger self-directed, self-replicating bots: how are they not susceptible or less susceptible to exactly the sort of damage/decay as living cells? Why would they not be subject to ‘nanocancers’ just as much as living cells are subject to regular cancers? I’d expect the problem to be even worse: the mechanisms that govern living things have gone through trillions of trials over billions of year, which has strongly tended to weed out stuff that doesn’t work, for most values of work. Yet cancers and other malfunctions seem to be ubiquitous among living things. This seems to be a classic unkowns we don’t know situation: if we knew how it worked, we’d have cured cancer by now. So, we think our bots will be any better? That data won’t get miscopied or damaged by radiation? Sure, there are a few animals with very low cancer rates – but we as of yet don’t really understand how that works.
  3. I often wondered about the whole ‘spinning hollow asteroid’ trick – wouldn’t that sucker have to be very carefully balanced? Get a little mass off-center, create a wobble – and? Does it correct itself once the mass imbalance is removed? Doesn’t this preclude moving around inside it much? Maybe a single person isn’t much, but how about a crowd? A piece of machinery?  I’m imagining a computer-controlled system of counterbalances might be required, which detects and corrects any wobbles before they get bad.

Like I said, asking for a friend.