Monthly Archives: July 2011

John Carter of Mars

I knew that a John Carter of Mars movie was being filmed – I didn’t know they had already released a trailer. Behold:

Now, I am a huge Edgar Rice Burroughs / Barsoom fan. Considering my Arnaron setting, this is probably not a surprise to my readers. I do realize that the worldbuilding for Barsoom is naive (at best; the phrase “thrown together” comes to mind) but it’s a strong archetype, and the stories are an easy, fun read. Besides, wouldn’t it have been exciting if Mars had turned out to be littered with ancient ruins?

There are a few nits I have to pick with the trailer though.

  • The Green Men of Mars look retarded. What are those things off the sides of their heads? Makes them look like puppies. Strange, evil, twisted, alien puppies, but still puppies.
  • The John Carter actor displays the Charisma of a loaf of bread in the trailer. He doesn’t look butch enough to be John Carter, either.
  • Dejah Toris looks like a “competent woman” in the trailer. Okay, a useless damsel in distress is probably less exciting to watch, and of all the dramatic license they could have taken this is not the worst. But John Carter saves the princess; it’s what he does. I surely hope that they didn’t make her too competent.
  • On that subject, she doesn’t quite look red enough.
  • And on that subject, nothing does! This is not a nit, it’s gonna be a gripe. The landscape does not look like Mars. Seriously guys, it’s the American West. When John Carter wakes up I first thought this was still on Earth. “He is supposed to be lay in a cave, not the desert, damn it!”, I thought – until I realized he was already on Mars. The fake looking plants kind of gave this away. The following shots, with the ruins and so on, they all look like Earth. They are nice shots, yes. But seriously, in this age of computer effects, couldn’t they have tinted everything in Mars colors? I am not even talking about the fake Viking colors we associate with Mars. Make it true-color Mars!

It’s still a definite “must see” for me, of course. And perhaps I should dust off my Barsoom pastiches before 2012…

FTL Drive: Questions Answered

Good morning and welcome to Global News.

With the return of our first interstellar FTL probes to the Sol System, and the discovery of several worlds suitable to colonization, Space Fever is gripping Earth. According to statistics, the volunteer rate for off-planet emigration has jumped by some 17,000 percent. Seven-teen-thousand. This number alone proves that the public now firmly sees the future of the human race among the stars.

With me is Mr. John Jones of the Colonial Authority, and we will be discussing some questions our viewers have been asking us lately. Mr. Jones, thank you for joining us.

Jones: It’s my pleasure.

Host: Mr Jones, can you give us a quick rundown of what projects we can expect as our next steps into space?

Jones: Certainly. As you know, we are about to launch our first manned expedition to Alpha Centauri in August. The ship was just christened three days ago. The Columbia was named after command module of the Apollo 11 mission – the first spaceship to carry humans that would land on another celestial body.

Host: Some say that this name is unfairly nationalistic considering the mission is clearly an international effort, and run by the Colonial Authority.

Jones: The name for the ship was chosen exclusively for historic significance, but Columbia is not just the personification of the United States, it stands for all of the Americas. However, let me add a personal remark. The United States carried 40% of the Authority’s budget until recently, and funded the Hyperdrive project almost exclusively until we worked out a first prototype. Without this money, we probably would not have a hyperdrive now. I think that is something to be thankful for, and thus playing politics with the naming of a spaceship should really not be our concern as we look into that bright future ahead of us.

Host: Indeed, indeed. The hyperdrive is based on whole new physics and allows us to travel faster than the speed of light, something most people didn’t think was actually possible. In layman’s terms, could you give us an overview of how that works?

Jones: It’s actually based on theories we had for over two hundred years. Back in the late 20th Century, physicists working in Cosmology came up with something called String Theory. To work, they needed to assume that there were 10 dimensions; nine spatial plus time. Eventually, they discovered that an 11th dimension was needed to make the theory work. This became known as Edward Witten’s M-Theory. What is most relevant for our purposes is that it assumes an 11-dimensions multiverse.

It is impossible for us to ever travel to any of those other universes that we know exist. They have radically different laws of nature, and even if we could travel there we’d instantly cease to exist. But what we can do, and use the hyperdrive for, is to slip in between those universes – basically travel through the structure of the multiverse itself in a bubble of spacetime with our own physical laws.

Host: So instead of going to an alternate universe, we stop half-way there?

Jones: Precisely. We do not actually travel faster than light. We cheat – we take a shortcut. And there’s another thing: Accelerating a mass to the speed of light takes a large amount of energy. Because we cheat, we get away expending much less energy – and no reaction mass at all. This is probably even more significant than breaking the light barrier. It also enables us to efficiently travel inside a system, within certain limits.

Host: What limits are those?

Jones: You can’t get too close to a gravity well within Hyperspace. Roughly, gravity leaks out of our universe and into the multiverse – it’s the reason gravity is so weak, much of its energy gets “lost” outside our universe. If your ship smashes into a gravity well of sufficient strength, it gets ripped apart. So you still have to travel conventionally to approach a planet, but you get to avoid the months and months of travel in between.

Host: How fast and far can a ship travel with Hyperdrive propulsion?

Jones: Speed depends on local gravity, so it’s slower in a system than interstellar space. Currently, state-of-the art technology logs thirty days to the light year – twelve times light speed. So a trip to Alpha Centauri takes over four months.

Host: Long trip.

Jones: Long trip, but that used to get us to Mars. And it took Columbus a month to get to the New World. Even so, the technology will mature. Current predictions say that 100 times light speed is feasible. That would cut that same trip down to three weeks. And that’s probably not the end to it. The real limit seems to be distance.

Host: Distance?

Jones: Distance. This is one aspect of hyperdrive technology we do not understand, but experiments have showed that there is a hard limit of 7.7 light years that a ship can travel in hyperspace. A charge builds up on the drive coils, and at 7.7 light years it begins to break down the coils into subatomic particles – you can imagine that this unleashes enough energy to rip the ship apart. Unfortunately, we can’t get rid of that charge except in a gravity well. We really do not understand why this happens, it’s a property of Hyperspace the theories do not predict. So you see how young that field really is.

Host: Surely we can work that out eventually.

Jones: Naturally, we always do. In the meantime it means a ship can only travel to another star system if it’s within 7.7 light years of the ship’s current position, because it needs a gravity well at the destination. Until we find a solution to that problem this organizes space into “lanes” or “arms”, and it means some systems will be cut off forever for us.

Host: So how far can we go?

Jones: We do not have very reliable star data for great distances. We can definitely get out of a 100 light year radius at several points, so it’s likely we’ll be able to access most of the Milky Way, even if we can’t visit all systems. A trip outside that 100 light years sphere is going to take decades at current travel speeds, so we have a lot of time to improve our drive technology and hyperdrive theory.

Host: Thank you Mr Jones. We will take a break here and return later, when we continue our interview with John Jones of the Colonial Authority to talk about the near future of interstellar colonialism and about the renewed interest in SETI.

Free For All Challenge Map – The Lost Valley

I took part in the June/July challenge at the Cartographers’ Guild. We had to turn the provided base map into a map of our own.

Provided Base Map for the Challenge
Provided Base Map for the Challenge

When I started my entry, most people had used the contours as coastlines, with some entries using them as lakes. I decided to do something different and turned them into a valley.

The Lost Valley: Challenge Entry
The Lost Valley: Challenge Entry

Unfortunately the challenge closed before I could add a version with fluff and some minor decorations. It’s a bit cluttered, so I do not mind that much.

The Lost Valley: Now With Fluff
The Lost Valley: Now With Fluff

This was my second entry into a Mapping Challenge – the first one was the River Challenge two years ago. I am quite satisfied with how this map turned out. I am not going to win this challenge, but that’s quite okay; I did not expect to. It was a late entry with a lot of good competition. It was great practice and I am sure I can make use of this map sooner or later.

Interstellar Probe “Vision” returns from Barnard’s Star

Houston, Republic of Texas — June 15th 2173. The third of mankind’s interstellar probes has returned today. “Vision”, the third of the initial trio of interstellar probes, has been exploring the Barnard’s Star since its departure in 2172.

Barnard’s Star is a flare star, and as such scientists did not expect it to be orbited by worlds harboring life. In addition, due to the star’s small size and low temperature, no worlds capable of human life were expected there either. The discoveries made at Barnard’s were not much of a surprise, therefore, and on the surface the “hostile” system may even seem like a disappointment after the rich discoveries in the Alpha Centauri system. However, this is not quite the case.

“Without any garden worlds, a result we expected, Barnard’s Star is still of vital strategic importance. It is within jump distance of Alpha Centauri A/B, Proxima Centauri, and Sol on the one hand, and Ross 154 on the other. “The star’s system will always be the ugly duckling,” one Colonial Authority scientist commented, “but all traffic going to and from Terra and the new colonies at the three Centauri stars is going to pass through Barnard’s, Ross 154 and Lacialle 8760.

“Only after Lacialle 8760 do we find multiple stars within Jump range again.”

In other words, unless a method is found to increase the range of jump drives – something theoretical science makes as impossible as traveling faster than light in our own space-time continuum – all ships that set out to explore, colonize and trade with the galaxy have to pass through those three systems, and with that traffic and the support that ships need, comes money.

And there is another aspect too. Any hostile fleet heading for Earth would have to take the same route.

“Barnard’s Star may well be our last line of defense before any aggressor hits Earth,” the official concluded. He declined to speculate about who those potential aggressor could be.

The planets of Barnard’s Star are:

  1. Glacier (0.05 AU): 10000km diameter, density 1, Gravity 0.83. Dense atmosphere, 70% ice sheets, 3 moons.
  2. Failed Core (0.11 AU): 7000km diameter, density 0.3, Gravity 0.18. Thin atmosphere, 50% ice sheets, no moons.
  3. Failed Core (0.3 AU): 7000 km diameter, density 0.3, gravity 0.18. Thin atmosphere, 70% ice sheets. 1 moon.
  4. Failed Core (0.6 AU): 14000 km diameter, density 0.2, gravity 0.23. Standard atmosphere, 90% ice sheets. no moons.
  5. Ice Ball (1.3 AU): 3000 km diameter, density 0.3, gravity 0.08. Vacuum, 100% ice sheets, no moons.

Out of the five planets, the innermost seems the most interesting for future bases. Its three moons, although smaller than Luna, lend themselves for orbital defense and spaceport facilities, while the relatively high gravity of the planet makes it easy for humans to adapt to life there.


A Ring in the Sky

A Ring in the Sky: Relative Sized of a Banks Orbital
A Ring in the Sky: Relative Sized of a Banks Orbital

The big ring is a Banks Orbital, a smaller cousin of a Ringworld. It has a diameter of 3.6 million kilometers, at a distance of 12.5 million kilometers from earth. It fills the sky. The smaller ring, between the Moon and the big ring, is the same Banks Orbital at a distance of 150 million kilometers.

The width of the Orbital’s ring is 50000 kilometers in both cases.

Photo “Full Moon” by Gibsongolfer, cc-by-sa licensed. (The above graphic is therefore under the same license.)

Plot-a-Day: Ten Uses for Asteroids

Asteroids. Big lumps of rock and metal floating in the endless void of space. The Dawn probe is about to enter orbit around Vesta, where it will stay a year before moving on to Ceres.

The Andiope Doublet (Image credit: ESO)
The Andiope Doublet (Image credit: ESO)

So I was wondering: What can you actually do with Asteroids? They seem pretty useless, but here are some ideas:

  1. Prisons: Try to escape from a ball of rock a few hundred kilometers in diameter, literally out in the middle of no-where. Good luck.
  2. Mining: Some asteroids contain valuable metals or minerals or even tiny primordial black holes, and could be a source of conflict if more than one party claims them.
  3. Warfare: Use them as a military base or crash them into a planet. It ensured victory over the dinosaurs.
  4. Secret hideout: Pirates, spies, alien invaders, mad scientists, religious fanatics, the Space Mafia, rich eccentrics, anybody who wishes to remain out of the limelight for a while may set up shop on an asteroid.
  5. Space ship: Hollow them out, put in quarters and a big drive system, and ride a chunk of rock to the stars. In theory you could even use the rock of the asteroid itself as reaction mass.
  6. Waystation: Use it as a refueling and resupplying depot on your way to the outer system, or assemble your first FTL ship using that asteroid as a base.
  7. Monuments: What better place for the grave of your early space heroes than an asteroid cemetary?
  8. Natural Hazard: Very dense asteroid belts might actually pose a hazard to spaceships. The asteroid belt in the Solar System doesn’t; but it’s a staple of Space Operae to posit belts where asteroid tumble about chaotically and close enough to each other to constantly bump into one another. If a belt is created within the story’s timeframe, say by destroying a planet, it could become a new hazard to hyperspace lanes or what have you.
  9. Doomsday: In fiction, asteroids have a habit of constantly crashing into Earth or other inhabited planets. The players could either be helpless to stop it, and need to deal with a society gone wild in expectation of doomsday, or are heroic heroes that get sent into space to help Bruce Willis blow up that approaching menace.
  10. Mystery: Back in the days, people thought the asteroids might be the left-over of a fifth planet that was ripped apart. They don’t have enough mass, among other things, so this seems no longer plausible. That doesn’t mean it isn’t true in your fictional universe – and it might be the origin of asteroid belts in other systems. The players could hunt for artifacts from the fifth planet, prevent a similar fate from befalling Earth, could encounter Aliens in cold sleep, survivors from the catastrophe; or they could travel back in time to prevent the disaster (or, in a twist, cause the disaster in the first place to keep the timeline intact).

What other uses could asteroids have in adventures? How have you used asteroids in your games or stories?

Plot-a-Day: The Evil of Eugenics

In June, the BBC reported that North Carolina is dealing with the late fallout from a Eugenics program. Eugenics is, in essence, the attempt to improve the genetic “quality” of a given population. When you hear that you automatically think of the Third Reich, but few people realize that the Nazis actually took cues from the United States – they just pushed it into the extreme.  What I did not know – and I am sure most other people also do not realize – is that such programs were still going on until 1979 – twenty four years after the end of World War II!

The possibilities for plots are endless.

  • The players are hired to look into a Eugenics program that ended in the 1970s, and uncover that the program only served as the cover for something more sinister: Human experiments, where the early geneticists attempted to “play god”. It could be a simple political conspiracy – maybe a Presidential candidate was involved as a young administrator – or these experiments could have created monsters (Call of Cthulhu campaign) or been done in cooperation with the Greys (X-Files style campaign).
  • In a supernatural campaign, a ghost may be restless because he was subject of such a program, and the players’ motivation is to bring the evildoers to justice so the ghost can rest in peace.
  • Human experimentation or Eungenics in the USA, Argetine or other countries could be based on Nazi medical research. In a “secret history” campaign, the traces could eventually lead to the Nazi base under the ice of Antarctica, or to the secret Nazi moon base.
  • Whatever the case, an option is to have the experiments continue until today, which the perpetrators naturally would not wish to come to light.
  • If you are playing a Cyberpunk game, a corporation might start a Eugenics project – for medical research reason, most likely. Or Eugenics could become acceptable again; in a society that does not value individual human life highly, it’s entirely conceivable that criminals or the very poor might get sterilized.
  • In a Science Fiction setting, Eugenics could be conducted on a remote Terran colony world, or the corrupt Galactic Empire could be conducting large-scale experimentation on the Slave Caste.
  • In a fantasy setting, any demi-human race could be the subject of Eugenics at the hands of the dominant races – usually humans. For example, Goblins, Orcs, Kobolds, or similar species could be bred for more intelligence or could be sterilized to limit their breeding rates. This might be especially true if they are capable of interbreeding with humans: Half-Orcs are a likely target for experiments or worse. In some societies, even Half-Elves could be considered an abomination that should not be allowed to produce offspring.
  • No matter what the setting, the players could portray members of a race or class that is subject to Eugenics. This might add a sinister twist and more urgency to the old “You are slaves/prisoners and need to escape” plot.
  • For a good twist on Eugenics, see the computer game Mass Effects: There, the Kroogan (reptilian aliens) were hit by a genetically engineered plague that reduced fertility of their females radically, saving not only the Milky Way galaxy from being overrun, but also stopped the Krogan from constantly warring amongs each other due to population pressure.

At any rate, Eugenics – and human experimentation – provide a good motivation for players, or a complication to any other adventure.