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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in gareth_wilson's LiveJournal:

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Saturday, July 28th, 2007
5:00 pm
Link of the Month
Planetocopia is a series of world building projects by Chris Wayan. Some of the planets he creates, like the ocean world Lyr, are traditional from-scratch alien planets, but some are strange alterations to Earth. For example, Seapole is Earth, tilted so that the poles are off Japan and in the middle of the South Atlantic. From there he extrapolates geography, climates, biology and cultures, in so much detail that he's discovered fictional seafloor geography, inserted into real maps for copyright reasons.
I found Planetocopia via Strange Maps, which does what it says on the tin.
Friday, December 22nd, 2006
10:59 am
Future Tense
SF is full of stories about alien invaders with curiously limited technology. It's usually just advanced enough to get them from their planet to Earth, but not so advanced that the human characters can't defeat them. Alien invasion stories have other oddities to them, like why there haven't been invasions thousands or millions of years ago, and what, exactly, the invaders are interested in. It's all perfectly acceptable dramatic license, but I wondered if it was possible to explain all of this with a single SF idea. Turns out it is:Read more...Collapse )
Sunday, November 19th, 2006
12:20 am
Aliens in the Hugo Winners
A survey of the novels, leaving out the fantasy and going in decades. I've read only a few of these, so any corrections are welcome. Read more...Collapse )
Friday, November 17th, 2006
5:40 pm
The UnSuggester
Via Lyle Masaki, this is a search engine that tells you what books to avoid. If you liked C.S Lewis' The Problem of Pain, avoid Laurell K. Hamilton's Incubus Dreams. Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep steers you away from John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion. And S.M. Stirling's Island in the Sea of Time is incompatible with The Devil Wears Prada. A shiny no-prize to anyone who owns all six...
11:45 am
A Question for the SF Readers
Has the use of intelligent, technologically advanced aliens declined in SF? I suspect it has, perhaps because of the reality of the Fermi Paradox sinking in. Even TV science fiction like Firefly and Battlestar Galactica is less likely to feature aliens these days, even if it's "reimagined" from a series that did. That said, I read only a small amount of modern SF so perhaps this isn't a real trend.
Sunday, October 15th, 2006
8:55 am
Band of Brothers
One of the hardest things about creating SF aliens is giving them an alien psychology. There seem to be three main approaches to this, none of them very satisfactory. The first is to use some kind of stereotyped culture, like all those catlike aliens with their honourable warriors. The second is to create an wonderfully bizarre psychology that would give the aliens problems dealing with the physical universe, let alone developing any technology. The third approach is not to bother at all, having even creatures as weird as Mesklinites think and behave like contemporary Americans.
An alien psychology should develop naturally out of the biology of the alien, although hopefully not as crudely as having herbivores that are natural cowards. In connection with this I've been thinking about altruism. Human beings have a tendency to trust strangers and help them at their own expense. There are game-theory reasons why they might do this, all the iterated Prisoner's Dilemmas that make up modern life. But humans seem to go beyond rational calculation and help people when they know there can't be any payoff. There's an evolutionary explanation for this that's been outlined most clearly by Richard Dawkins. It makes evolutionary sense to help out your relatives, because they share genes in common with you. But the human race has evolved while living in small, isolated groups mostly made up of relatives. Rather than go through complicated calculations of relatedness, in that situation it's easier to just help any human being you come across. They'll probably be related to you in some way, and if not you haven't lost much. This strategy doesn't work if you live in a city with thousands of unrelated people, but the evolution of our behaviour hasn't adjusted to that yet. We should hope it doesn't.
Imagine an intelligent alien that evolved surrounded by lots of unrelated members of its own species. It could have reached the stage of agriculture and cities and stagnated there for a million years, becoming as adapted to unrelated crowds as humans are to a band of hunter-gatherers. Or it could just be the equivalent of a gull that nests among thousands of other gulls. Under those conditions, evolution would select against any kind of altruism outside the alien's relatives, and for elaborate methods to detect degrees of relatedness.
This sounds like a classic "evil" alien, quite willing to rob, enslave, or kill any other member of its species as long as the payoff is enough. But most of what humans think of as evil involves self-sacrifice for a group that would be impossible for these aliens. They probably wouldn't bother to round up and gas specific ethnic groups: what's in it for them, and who's paying for the gas? And they certainly won't hijack planes and fly them into buildings. Also unlike most evil aliens in SF, they won't be xenophobic. Sure, they'd slit the throat of any human for a nickel, and expect us to do the same. But the same goes for the other aliens they ride with to work, and the mechanisms they use to get on with them can easily be applied to humans. Like Homer Simpson avoiding jury duty, they're prejudiced against all races.
Wednesday, October 4th, 2006
10:54 pm
Request for a Magic System
Most of my worldbuilding efforts are science fiction, but recently I've come up with an interesting and reasonably original fantasy setting. I'm looking to develop it further, perhaps as a RPG background, and I was wondering which game system handled magic in a way that would be appropriate for this setting. I already have a fair bit of detail, but I'll just describe the magical elements for now:
Magic users are fairly rare - there'll only be one or two in every town. The range of "spells" is very broad, but there are some restrictions not usually found in RPG magic. First, magic only works on living organisms. No magical inanimate objects, no zombies, and no beams of magical energy. If you want a "magic missile", just cast a spell on yourself and throw a rock at Mach 3. Secondly, some living organisms are unaffected by magic. All microscopic life, all domestic animals and plants, all pests and weeds, and (crucially), all humans except for magic users. The Mach 3 rocks will still hurt them, but magic can't do anything directly to them. Thirdly, magic requires negotiation with intelligent otherworldly beings, and sacrifice of living things to those beings. The sacrifices have to involve animals or plants that can be affected by magic, but too much magical malarky makes them useless as sacrifices. Magical power is a function of how many sacrifices you make and how skillfully you negotiate.
So, any suggestions?
Friday, September 15th, 2006
8:28 pm
Joss Whedon Invented Telepathy
Well, no. But according to Television Without Pity, some people actually do think that, and criticise other TV shows with telepaths of ripping him off. All that silliness got me wondering: what was the first fictional treatment of telepathy? Let's define "telepathy" as human beings being able to read the minds of other humans without their knowledge.
Friday, September 8th, 2006
10:14 am
The Suspiciously Convenient System
S.M. Stirling is currently writing a series of books set in an alternate history where both Mars and Venus are inhabited. You can read sample chapters from the first book here. The scenario is obviously a update of the old SF stories with Martians and Venusians, but tweaked to be consistent with modern science. For example, the Venusians don't just coincidentally resemble human beings as they did in the pulp stories. They are human beings, transported from Earth to Venus thousands of years ago by obscure aliens. The books look like they'll be lots of fun, but the combination of alternate history and meddling aliens is a little too contrived for my liking. So, what about a hard-SF version of the old pulp scenario, where there are three intelligent species within easy reach of each other? Here's my attempt:Read more...Collapse )
Saturday, August 26th, 2006
9:19 am
If people want Pluto to be a planet
Without changing the latest definition, what would have to be done to Pluto to get it to qualify?
Wednesday, August 23rd, 2006
4:54 pm
War and Peace
By reading a few pieces on the internet, I've discovered that my near-future scenarios are much less likely to contain wars between advanced states than other people's. So suppose I write something set in say, 2049. If the background doesn't contain any war between major powers, how implausible does that seem?
Friday, August 18th, 2006
9:12 pm
Another Half-baked Idea
Vaguely inspired by both Runaways and Miles Vorkosigan. It's the near future, and we follow a group of two-fisted adventurers united by having become famous, or at least famous-by-proxy, before they were even born. They're fictionalised equivalents of Carter Allan England, Suri Cruise, and the daughter of Nezar Hindawi, plus whoever else I can think of. Despite the circumstances of their births, they're all perfectly well-adjusted, good-hearted people who have banded to together to seek out fame, glory, and the chance to be more than a sidebar in a yellowed tabloid clipping. Now, if I could just think of an appropriate name. "The Fighting Fetuses" is right out.
Sunday, August 6th, 2006
3:40 pm
If this goes on...
Science fiction has always projected current trends into the future, but there are a few trends that don't seem to have been used. Read more...Collapse )
Monday, July 31st, 2006
6:34 pm
Sunday, July 30th, 2006
5:20 pm
Language Creation for Busy People
If you're interested in creating full-scale artificial languages with the same kind of detail as Klingon or Quenya, there's plenty of resources on the Internet to help you. I recommend Mark Rosenfelder's Language Construction Kit myself. But it strikes me that there's more need for small-scale languages, to supply place and personal names for various SF and fantasy stories and game settings that make some linguistic sense. One of the worst aspects of the Wheel of Time series is its gratingly silly names, but it's certainly not the only offender. So, I thought I'd try to boil language creation to a minimum of effort, suitable for writers and game designers who don't have the time or inclination to be the next Tolkien. Read more...Collapse )
Saturday, July 29th, 2006
12:38 am
Wednesday, July 26th, 2006
5:14 pm
Patience Please
If we ever invent a lightspeed drive, the first starships will be hugely expensive unmanned probes, and they'll pose an interesting problem for people trying to get them funded. To see why, consider what stars they would be targeted to. The first would be the Alpha Centauri system, 4.26 light years away. It would take four years and three months for a lightspeed probe to reach the system, and the same length of time for signals to return to Earth. The total time before getting any information would be eight years and six months. Since the New Horizons probe will take about that long to reach Pluto, it doesn't seem unreasonable for a government to plan a mission over that length of time.
But that's for the closest star system. Getting information back from Barnard's Star will take twelve years. From Epsilon Eridani, the closest star with a planet, it takes 21 years. And from Gliese 876, the closest star with a terrestrial planet, it's 30 years before there's any payoff from the investment in the probe. At some point governments will refuse to fund the probes because their results are so far in the future, no matter how interesting the target is. And passive sensors, which get results instantly, will keep getting better and better and detecting things that are further and further away. A life-bearing planet could easily be discovered 50 light years away - and not have any probe sent to it, because no-one expects to live long enough to see any results.
There are two ways around this. A lightspeed probe could be sent to a relatively close target, send back data to keep the funders happy, and then continue on to a more distant target. This works even if the more distant target is an inconvenient angle away - it just means the data takes say, 200 years to arrive rather than 100. If this doesn't work because of some difficulty with multiple jumps, there's another option. It's quite likely that opinions will differ on how long is too long - criticism of governments for focusing entirely on the short-term is common throughout the political spectrum. If the target is interesting enough, and just outside the cutoff point, and the security on the starport is lax enough... There won't be any bombs, guns, box-cutters, or even passengers, but it could be the golden age of hijacking.
Thursday, July 20th, 2006
9:33 pm
A foreign country
One of my worldbuilding ideas that lends itself more easily to a story:
It starts with a theory that predicts another "universe", and describes how to get there. Exactly how the other universe is different is unclear. The universe portal is built and a series of robot probes reveal a planet on the other side, so hot and wet that the word "sauna" is soon outlawed in the lab. The air is breathable, and eventually people start to explore the planet in person. They get a few nasty shocks - like everyone getting sleep apnea because the partial pressure of carbon dioxide is too low. Cloud cover and jungle canopies mean that observing the night sky is difficult, but what they can see doesn't resemble any known constellations. It's generally accepted that this universe is very similar to our own, and this planet is edging into the "wet greenhouse" as its star brightens. Both of which are true. One unusually clear night someone is looking in the right direction and sees this:Read more...Collapse )
Wednesday, July 12th, 2006
6:30 pm
The Old World
Barnard's star is the second-closest star to the Solar System, has the fastest movement across the sky, and is by far the oldest nearby star. Estimates of its age range from 11 to 12 billion years, making it more than 80% of the age of the Universe itself. I'm trying to decide whether it's possible to have a terrestrial planet in orbit around it, and what the planet would be like.
At first glance it doesn't look too likely - Barnard's star has only 20% of the metallicity of the Sun so the elements that go into building a planet are very scarce. But there still should be enough for a single Earth-sized planet. You might imagine in a low-metallicity system the planet would have huge amounts of water and other volatiles. But "metals" actually includes oxygen and nitrogen in this context, and the Barnard's star system won't necessarily have a lot of the compounds these elements form, even if it has lots of hydrogen. In any case, terrestrial planets form in regions of the system too hot for volatiles to condense, and get them mostly through later impacts. The planet could wind up fairly dry by random chance.
One way the planet will be different is the lack of uranium and thorium. These are formed in supernovas and will be extremely rare in the Barnard's star system. This means that the only source of internal heat in the planet will be from the decay of potassium-40, plus the residue of the heat produced in the planet's formation. By now the planet will be completely dead, both radiologically and geologically, with no plate tectonics and no volcanos. On an Earth-like world this would be very bad for life - all the nutrients would end up on the floor of a global ocean, and the ecosystem would slowly starve to death. But if the planet's even dryer than Earth, maybe there'd be some dry land left even after 12 billion years of erosion, and the nutrients would still be available.
Of course this planet would be tide-locked to Barnard's star, but that's a whole other story.
Tuesday, July 11th, 2006
11:50 pm
Lately I've been reading about Alpha Flight, the Canadian superhero team. As described here their creator was Canadian himself and included some odd stereotypes that non-Canadian readers would have some trouble understanding. This inspired me to create the New Zealand equivalent, modelled on New Zealand government and quasi-government agencies.Read more...Collapse )
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