Friday, July 31, 2009

Random Comic Book Panels From Some Old Comic

Golden Age comics were often quite weird.

Not that this is news or anything. The Silver Age's weirdness is really more infamous, but the Golden Age has a few instances of concentrated oddity that are pretty out there. Case in point:

The Golden Age's spikiest hero, Power Nelson (you can pick up the comic, which is apparently public domain, here, in the ultra-convenient Comic Book Reader format-and you can also find the Comic Book Reader program on the same site), is a guy who knows how to use his head. (rimshot)

He's usually smart enough to use his hands instead, though...

Anyway, one of the highlights of these stories is that the aliens are weird. Not weird as in foreign, weird as in... well...

Yeah, the king of those guys has to use his special language ray himself. What's up with that? I kinda like that weird suit anyway, though it's horribly drawn.

And there's this guy's enemies, the hairy guroos.

More like beardy guroos...

And then there's the green guys from Uranus.

Also, Power Nelson fights some darned ugly robots:

Yes, these comics aren't really for people who need logic... or art that makes sense or is good... or... never mind.

Bonus weirdness:


-Signing off.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

It's That Time Again...

Embedded video attack!

-Signing off.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

More Fictional Spacecraft That Deserve Mention

Primarily from prose this time, with an exception or two (which by coincidence are from video games).

5. The Edison fleet. (Edison's Conquest of Mars, by Garrett P. Serviss.) I've talked about them in the past. What can be said? They're the first actual space warships in fiction that I can think of. That alone deserves mention.

4. Arc Hammer. (Dark Forces [Star Wars FPS game].) Sure, all it does is build stuff and then drop it on people, but don't tell me that's lame when the stuff it builds and drops is flying robot assault soldiers.

3. Nemesis. (Space Viking, by H. Beam Piper.) For reasons detailed in yesterday's post, the Nemesis (boy, a lot of cool ships get named that, huh?) is pretty cool, since it's armed with hellburners and planetbusters. But it was also the ship built by the central character in order to hunt down his mortal enemy (the guy who killed his wife), who had stolen a ship which, in the science fiction coincidence of the '60s, was named the Enterprise.

2. Liberator (Star Crusader [old PC game], Take 2 Interactive.) A bit of background: This was one of the first PC games I ever played. (I also played Earthsiege and Dark Forces, but this game came with my first computer. I suppose I played a few others, but this is the only one I remember well from back then.) Star Crusader was a primitive space simulator, far inferior to the later X-Wing/TIE Fighter titles in terms of graphics and such. But there was something about the gameplay that was appealing. Perhaps I'll review it sometime. But I digress.

The Liberator was the hands-down best pilotable ship in that game. Why? Because it was Star Crusader's answer to the Y-Wing, but unlike the Y-Wing, its advantages were real. (The Y-Wing, relative to the X-Wing, had less laser firepower, but with its ion cannons had a more flexible armament; it also was supposed to carry a bigger supply of proton torpedoes. But it was a slow-moving, vulnerable spud, so it died a lot.) The Liberator's thick shields, decent lasers, disruptors (i.e. ion cannons), and torpedo complement made it a winner. Its slowness wasn't that big a deal. And it carried more than twice as many torpedoes as the Star Crusader analogue to the X-Wing, the Scorpion. In fact, because capital ships were weirdly small in that game, a Liberator could alpha strike almost anything in the game to kill it by emptying out its torpedo supply. Only a couple of big space stations could stand up to that kind of abuse, and they usually were badly hurt enough to safely finish them off with the lasers or disruptors.

One can only speculate why they made the Liberator so tough; it could merely be because they only had one movie-quality model for the Gorene ("good guy") fighters, and didn't want to spend the money on making one for the Scorpion too-and wanted to make their "hero ship" as impressive as possible.

1. Guardships. (The Dragon Never Sleeps, by Glen Cook.) This book is in my review pile, waiting for me to type it up. The Guardships are really something else. They're named after Roman legions, and themselves are essentially legions-crewed by endless clones, replaced over and over again, the Guardship's central Core computer gradually becoming smarter and smarter as it learns from its enemies and adapts. For four thousand years the Guardships-which themselves are backed up by the Guardship starbases so that they can be rebuilt at the drop of a hat (one Guardship that was completely wiped out in a battle returned to full service faster than another that was merely badly damaged, thanks to a completed ship in drydock being imprinted with its backups)-have protected their region of space, and bringing the law to bear even against their own creators, who at this point rather regret what they did and are probably wondering what the heck their ancestors were thinking. The Guardships were each bigger than some gas giant moons (darned big, for reference-these things would give the ol' Death Star the shakes), and even one was usually too much for entire fleets of other craft. It was remarked that the Guardships weren't invincible yet.

And that's a list.

-Signing off.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Greatly Belated Book Reviews: Space Viking

What if I told you that there's a book with more exciting space-based combat and better political commentary than Starship Troopers?

What if I told you that there's a book with more realistic scenarios, technology, and historical change than the Foundation series?

What if I told you that there's a book where space pirates prey on hapless planets whose civilizations have degenerated, who intentionally or not keep civilization alive through their depredations?

What if I told you that all of these books are the same book, Space Viking, which appears to be in the public domain?

The world of Space Viking is a violent, dangerous place, wherein the Space Vikings (yes, they're called that) of the Sword-Worlds raid the other planets of the galaxy, sometimes setting up colonies on them, and generally wreaking havoc. The eye for detail and the concepts within are, while slightly outdated in modern eyes, still very solid.

But the main focus of the book involves drawing parallels between history and events in the book, satirizing many forms of government. For instance, present in the book are two small, planet-based nations called Eglonsby (or something like that-I don't feel like looking it up) and Stolgoland, obvious analogies for the Soviet Union and the United States. (In that order. Yes, Stolgoland is more like the USA.) Both of them are mocked rather mercilessly, and both of them disintegrate within the course of the book thanks to a Space Viking raid.

The biggest parallel, the one that has the most time spent on it, is the coup against the planet Marduk's constitutional monarchy by an externally backed Hitler analogue.

I'd go into it, but it's involved.

Anyway, the truly brilliant part of the book is the space combat. The stardrives in the story are very slow compared to those in many space operas, which makes chasing one's enemies through space all but impossible. Faster than light transmissions are impossible-only big spacecraft, none of which can really be faster than any other, can make long journeys. Replacing the forcefields which are fairly ubiquitous in more recent space operas is a simpler, more believable option-enormously heavy armor made of collapsium. Most weapons are forms of the missiles, guns, and bombs with which we are familiar today-although considerably more effective. (Among the bombs are one called a "hellburner," which sets off a huge fusion reaction that is self-sustaining-imagine if the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had kept burning for days instead of letting out a single blast; and the "planetbuster," which could could kill even the toughest warship or cause significant ecological disasters if actually used on a planet.) Combat computers calculated relative armaments and potential speeds as well as monitoring damage control, and certainly aided weapons in hitting their marks.

Perhaps most remarkable? The main character's ship, the Nemesis, is accurately portrayed on the cover of the book. (If you look on the Wikipedia page for it, the moonish thing in the sky in the background is the Nemesis. And it's correctly drawn as is really possible. I'm kinda iffy on the guys in the foreground, though...)

The only way one could actually bring the whole matter into congruence with how we look at the combat of the future now is if there were point defense lasers and stuff.

I quite enjoyed Space Viking, and since you can get it on Project Gutenberg, well, it's free, so why not try it? It's a pretty quick read and stuff.

Note I haven't even mentioned that the longest-running plotline in the book is that the main character ends up becoming a Space Viking in order to avenge his wife, who was killed within a few minutes of their wedding.

-Signing off.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A Relativity Thought Experiment

A while ago, I mentioned some stuff about relativity; thinking about the weird and counterintuitive sciences is something I do occasionally. Read up a bit on Einstein's theories of relativity and the energy mass conversion formula if you aren't particularly familiar with them.

Now here's my thought experiment, which rather resembles one of the Greek paradoxes: Say that we have a spaceship which propels itself by converting matter directly to energy, which is converted directly to propulsion. (Actually, even the simplest chemical reactions, in addition to nuclear fission and fusion, involve the conversion of matter into energy; it's just that in chemical reactions, the amounts are almost undetectably small, and energy can essentially be converted back into matter by other reactions. This makes the theoretical grounds here less irrelevant than you'd think.) We set the ship to accelerate at a given rate.

When the ship starts approaching the speed of light c (and in the vacuum of space, if there aren't any big objects nearby, nothing will stop it from doing so), relativity says that its mass will start to perceptibly increase. Now, as a result of this, or so scientists say, it will progressively take more and more energy to push towards c, thus making it harder and harder to perform additional acceleration.

But as the ship's mass increases, so does the mass of its fuel... and since the mass of the fuel is increasing, the amount of energy that the ship's engines can create with that fuel increases by c squared, which you should be aware is a very large value indeed.

Is this one of those things that time dilation is supposed to account for, or is it something that nobody's addressed? I've read Hawking's A Brief History of Time and Michio Kaku's Hyperspace, and skimmed other books on the subject; none of them mention this at all.

Is it something that's been explained somewhere and I just haven't heard, or what?

-Signing off.

Friday, July 24, 2009


I've linked to this before, but it was a while ago, and I'm feeling relatively unmotivated.

I think Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary said it best: "Check your cynicism at the door."

Sure, it's cheesy as heck, but it's still a happy little thing, isn't it? And that's always refreshing these days.

-Signing off.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Greatly Belated Book Reviews: Edmond Hamilton's Starwolf

Not to be confused with the Star Fox Star Wolves.

I've talked at some length about Edmond Hamilton's work before. Starwolf has the same love of over the top concepts that The Star Kings has, but approaches it from a different direction.

While The Star Kings puts an ordinary guy from the post WWII era in the middle of a crazy space opera from the perspective of one of the most powerful personages in its world, the Starwolf stories are about one Morgan Chane, a rather unusual space pirate. The primary group of space pirates (or perhaps a tad more accurately, space vikings, although I'm saving that review for later) are the Starwolves, natives of the planet Varna, whose high gravity leaves its inhabitants physically stronger and faster than anyone else, and as a result better able to endure intense acceleration. A good summary of the Varnan attitude comes from the second Starwolf story:

He remembered Varna, the place that had always been home to him. The great, harsh, unfriendly, oversized planet which gave its children nothing except the unmatchable strength and speed which its cruelly heavy gravitation bred into their bodies. Even to Chane it had given that, when he had survived being born there. It was as though Varna was a stern mother who told her sons, "I have given you strength and that is all I have to give... go forth and take whatever else you want."
And they had gone forth, the sons of Varna! As soon as they learned the way to make starships, from foolish Earthmen who were trying to encourage trade, the Varnans swarmed out to loot the lesser worlds. They were unbeatable in space; no other people could stand the acceleration they could stand. Across the galaxy went the fear of the quick and ruthless ones-the Starwolves!

The Varnans built their ships differently from others. While most folks built warships to be big and sturdy, the Varnans made theirs small and nimble, and their ships could pick apart heavier craft quite easily.

The reason Morgan Chane is unusual isn't because he's a Starwolf; the reason he's unusual is because, as you may have inferred, he's a Starwolf of Terran heritage. (This is an important distinction; as in Star Trek, most aliens in these stories are actually humans with mildly different characteristics, apparently seeded ages ago by an unknown civilization.) While the Starwolves were mostly egalitarian, one of the others that Chane had thought to be his friend, Ssander, decided that the Earthman didn't deserve as much loot as he did, and when Ssander threatened Chane, Chane killed him. This caused Ssander's family to swear blood oaths to kill Chane.


So Chane is forced to flee the Starwolves, and winds up being picked up by a group of mercenaries (nearly always abbreviated Mercs). Their leader, John Dilullo, figures out that Chane is the "Earthman Starwolf" that he had heard vague rumors about, and swiftly learns that Chane was running from the others; he offers Chane a job, which was not so much an offer as a demand, since he could have told the others that Chane was a Starwolf, which would be an instant death sentence.

So the three Starwolf stories (The Weapon From Beyond, The Closed Worlds, and World of the Starwolves) are primarily about what eventually becomes the friendship between Chane and Dilullo, and their adventures with the Merc bands, the only other major recurring Merc being a deceptively fat man named Bollard, usually Dilullo's second. (Bollard, by the way, is actually my favorite supporting character; there's just something about the guy. Sure, the reader is constantly reminded of him being overweight, but it clearly isn't an impediment for him, and he's one of the smarter, more devious characters. And of course, in their line of work deviousness is a good thing.)

The setting has two peculiar, some would say glaring, flaws.

First, Edmond Hamilton makes the peculiar but common assumption about other galaxies among many of the old guard (and I do mean old) of science fiction writers, which translates essentially as: In different parts of space, the periodic table is totally different from what it is here. If you've ever taken some basic science or looked into the matter, you'd be aware that this assumption is total bull.

Second, and this is important to the story, Earthmen are the most technologically advanced race in the galaxy, but Earth is much poorer than any other planet, hence the desperation measure of Earthmen hiring themselves out as Mercs. WHAT?

Granted, for some reason the Earthers decided to basically give away the basics of spacecraft design, but you'd think that they'd be able to make a killing monetarily even if they did. There's some kind of nonsense about how Earth's solar system doesn't have any other habitable planets, while most systems do, and thus most systems are richer, blah blah blah fishcakes, but this really doesn't make much sense either-most of the inhabited planets within single systems fight with each other.

But if you can get around these, and if you can stand reading old pulp fiction, chances are you can, then Edmond Hamilton's Starwolf stories are a fun little romp. Chane in particular is delightfully evil, and I mean that literally.

-Signing off.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009


Tired tonight. No blog.

-Signing off.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

An Arbitrary List of Fictional Spaceships Whose Number Happens to be 10

So I was going through my rounds, and noted some lists of spaceships (Siskoid's list of ships that this list missed, and, well, that list), and thought to myself, well, I could do that today.

10. Leviathan (Star Wars, mostly video game and RPG stuff). Y'know, Star Wars' "Star Destroyer" design has been pretty much done to death. So it's always refreshing to see an interesting take on it.

9. Sanhedrim ship (Star Wars, some novels and stuff). I've always liked organic-looking spaceships, and this one I also like because it's used by warrior space monks to kill slavers. No joke.

8. Mon Calamari Star Cruiser (Star Wars, ROTJ and plenty of other places). I like organic ships, like I said. Also, it's a trap.

7. Lexx (Lexx). I've never seen the series, and have no particular intention of doing so, but I love the design. When I first saw it, I thought to myself "well, that looks like a huge space dragonfly or something." Then I read up on it, and discovered it was literally a huge space dragonfly that had been made into a ship. Awesome.

6. Axalon (Beast Wars). Not the prettiest ship around, but something about the darned thing has always appealed to me. Of course, on the Transformers Wiki they occasionally wonder if the Transformers actually use spaceships for anything other than immobile bases anymore, and the Axalon really typifies this...

5. Ark (G1 Transformers). ...though maybe not nearly as much as its predecessor. The Ark really always seemed kind of lame, although it survived hitting the planet Earth really fast and then sitting there for four million years, so obviously it was durable.

4. Nemesis (BWII Transformers). I don't have much to say about this planet-eating monster of a ship, but I will put up a picture obtained from the TFWiki:

3. Nemesis (G1 Transformers). Of course, the problem with doing stuff in Transformers is that pretty much all the really cool stuff has the same two or three names. The notable cool thing about this Nemesis is that it has some Star Destroyer and Klingon warship in its pedigree, but is functionally half warship, half mining ship. Yes. (It's equipped with a huge tractor beam/grinding and chopping thing hybrid with no apparent practical purpose for combat, but it'd be pretty handy for picking up junk to get useful metals refined out of them.)

2. Ark (Transformers Cybertron). Primus, the Transformers' creator, used this Ark as a cannon to destroy a giant black hole. 'Nuff said.

1. Nemesis (Transformers Animated). Um, this one spent all of its time as an immobile base too, but at least it kept floating. Really, the only thing that puts it here is that it's really pretty.

Dishonorable mention: To prove that I don't simply really like all Transformers spaceships, I despise this thing.

Hmm, I wonder what this list might have been like if I'd put some effort into it...

-Signing off.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Cheap Movie Fourpack...

...which is completely different from the one that spurred some reviews and commentary on some old, mostly-public domain sci-fi movies.

The movies came in a box with this cover.

When I peeled the plastic seal off the box, I discovered that only one of the two inner DVD cases had its own plastic wrap on it (which was sticky and wouldn't come completely off). The other had nothing.

Nothing says "quality control" like inconsistent packaging, eh?

When I took them out, I noticed a couple of things. Check out these covers.

Notice anything?

Here's a couple of more selective comparisons in case you missed it.


Something else that's funny-all but one of the movies have actors whose names I recognize primarily because they've done Transformers voice acting. No joke. (Here, here, and here.)

I haven't even watched any of these yet, and I've already gotten a few bucks' worth of entertainment. Awesome.

-Signing off.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Robots Have No Tails...

...although ironically, I was just reading Stanislaw Lem's "Tale of the Computer That Fought A Dragon," in which a robotic dinosaur/dragon ate a computer to make itself a tail.

Robots Have No Tails is the name of a recently reprinted anthology of stories by Henry Kuttner (originally under the pseudonym Lewis Padgett) about an inventor named Gallegher. I don't have this collection (though I would rather like to), but I have read one of the stories in it thanks to a really big collection of oldish science fiction I have.

The story is called "The Proud Robot," and it features a hideous, extremely vain robot called Joe.

Joe pretty well makes the story, simply because he's a hilarious and thoroughly weird character.

One of the biggest reasons for this is because he's enormously perceptive. He has some kind of combination of psychic and hypnotic powers. He has imaginary names for most of them-when asked what one of them, vastening, is, he describes it as being "something like a cross between presience and sagrazi." "Sagrazi?" "Oh, I forgot, you don't have those, either."

I'd probably do a more complete summary of it or something, but plenty of other people have reviewed it, it's my birthday, and I don't feel like it. Go read a book.

-Signing off.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Children's Educational Books On Robots

Fact: The most exciting thing about the old How and Why Wonder Book about "Robots and Electronic Brains" (publication date 1963) is the cover. (See it here.)

Reading really old books can often give interesting perspectives on the present, and the ancient How and Why books (from all the way back in the '60s) is no exception. It is also a good way to actually learn about some of the basics of computing... although if you want that, there are almost certainly better modern sources.

One of the most amusing and idiosyncratic features of this particular old book is that it calls any random robots that are mobile and have work arms "MOBOTs." It seems to further assume that in the future, all robots that perform dangerous, exotic work for people will probably also be called Mobots. Sadly, there seem to be no references to the original Mobot on the internet, although Wikipedia redirects the search term to "mobile robot," which is what it's short for. (The closest thing on Wikipedia in terms of time and name to Mobot was actually Mowbot, the first lawnmowing robot. No joke.)

The book also talks about teaching machines, an amusing anachronism far less fascinating than its neighbor in that article, the pigeon-guided missile. Of course, the teaching machines described in the book are at least a little bit different than the ones described in the article, so I dunno.

Then there's the Robots book from the "Modern Technology" series. Published in 1986 (the year my sister was born), this book likewise focuses on then-modern ideas of robots and the then-near future. It's a bit less jarring in that respect, and itself almost quaint.

It's also rather boring.

Don't get me wrong-it actually has pretty good information on robotics and the like. It even has photographs of many robots that are obvious progenitors of today's sophisticated humanoid robots, as well as a picture of a "seeing eye robot." (It also hints at Japan's dominance in robotics, although it doesn't refer to it explicitly.)

But I find it a bit hard to believe that it could really make a kid excited about robots, especially these days.

There was another book I was going to talk about a little bit, but it belongs to my kid brother, and got itself thoroughly lost last week. Sadly, that was the fun one.

-Signing off.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Cartoon Profiles: Droids

So what do you get when R2-D2 and C-3PO are licensed to appear in a cartoon series?

Probably the closest thing to a Star Wars universe story that just happens to be a cartoon instead of a movie.

Now, that sounds like a no-brainer. But the recent Clone Wars stuff (both the Genndy Tartakovsky hyperactive cartoon stuff and the CGI-based stuff) weren't quite Star Wars cartoons. (Genndy comes closer. My only problem is that he takes the Jedi just a smidgen too far. And, well, most of them weren't really stories so much as extreme fight sequences.)

Even though Droids was really a pretty weird experience, my immediate conclusion after watching just one episode (I've seen more than that, but I'm generalizing) is "Well, that's better than I ever would have expected." The animation is pretty good for the time period, as this clip demonstrates.

If you ever wondered what it would be like to see Artoo dance, well, you can thank me in the comments.

But one of the fairly key things that this cartoon does successfully, and which really makes it for me, is the fact that it sounds like Star Wars. The recent Clone Wars movie which bugged so many people didn't bug me for a lot of the same reasons, but it did bug me because it all sounded off.

The "good sound" of Droids can be attributed to the simple fact that Ben Burtt, the sound guy for the original movies, was a big figure in the cartoon's production.

As for the writing itself, Droids was relatively unusual next to its contemporaries, because it had serialized storylines. Watching one episode of Droids is... pretty dumb, really, because you're just getting a little chunk of something.

Also, unlike the Ewoks cartoon it is associated with, it's a highly energetic series (or so says my sister, who watched a few episodes of Ewoks with my kid brother-I was busy elsewhere at the time).

So you could do a lot worse than Droids did.

-Signing off.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Positronic Brains

"Positronic brain" was a term coined by Isaac Asimov. (For more information on it, just click the ol' link.) While Asimov made many useful, interesting, and important observations involving potential future robots in his various stories about them, this is probably his least important contribution in and of itself.


Because the idea of a "positronic brain" is pretty much completely insane.

"Positronic" refers to positrons. That is to say, antielectrons. That is to say, antimatter.

So a positronic brain would be, even if it was carefully shielded, full of explosive material. Not a good idea.

A further issue is the fact that, since they're antimatter, producing the number of positrons that would be involved in positronic brains would probably be hideously expensive. (If you read the positron article, it mentions that somehow, somebody's been making billions of them; the necessary number for a positronic brain, especially as Asimov defined it, would probably range towards the number of the Avagadro constant or so. That is, billions and billions of billions.)

So, yeah, Asimov was a good author, but some of his technobabble is dated. Not surprising. (He coined the term around 1940. Holy cheese.)

-Signing off.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Awesome Robot Time

(Sig banner by my sister.)

Today, I'm going to talk a bit about a charming story called The Runaway Robot. Conceptualized by Lester del Rey and ghost written by... some other guy, it's an old SF kids' book. As the review I linked notes, many people remember it fondly for being a charming story about a boy and his robot, who turns out to be far more human than anyone thought possible.

This leaves me with several possible subjects. I could talk about robot rights, which is a biggie.

Or I could talk about the charming anachronisms, such as sending messages through space on tapes.

I could talk about how the "boy and his robot" thing is practically a sub-genre. (I even read a book years ago that would fit in the sub-genre while defying its conventions, where a little girl met a huge, surly exploration robot, who complains about plot holes in science fiction movies, among other things. Here it is on Amazon.)

I could even talk about how Rex, the main character and narrator, is good-natured and pleasant without being sickeningly so.

But I'm not going to talk about any of those things.

I'm going to talk about Rex's unintentional awesome factor. Like Robot John before him (or after him, depending on if you mean my personal timeline or the blog's timeline), Rex is pretty awesome.

While Robot John is awesome because he overcame his own clunkiness and tried to throw the foolish scientist who built him into a lava flow, Rex is awesome because he's a devious, devious guy.

Case in point: Rex can't technically lie. He's programmed not to. But, when faced with a situation where he needs to deceive someone, he can lie by omission. (He does so many times.) But that's only the tip of the iceberg.

At one point, he totally makes up some nonsense to distract some people. (Something like "Help! Help! A mad robot killed my whole family! I had a stick I was using to hold him off, but I dropped it!" Technically, that's lying-I don't know how his anti-lying circuits missed that. By the way, mad robots, robots that randomly went berserk, were a common element of the story. We don't see too many, but they're mentioned often, as they're one of the worst perils of the society. The reason he was distracting people was because there was a real mad robot out there, and some fools mistook him for it.)

Here's a real kicker, though-knowing he wouldn't be able to escape a ship captain that he was taking passage with, and determined to do so, he made fake serial number plates with his own and another robot's serial numbers, and switched serial numbers with the other (lackwitted) robot in order to escape. Those anti-lying circuits didn't define lying very well, did they?

Then, while he's walking down the street, he learns that Paul (the boy who "owns" him but from whom he has been separated by the plot of the book) is going to get in trouble for stealing him (even though he didn't get stolen-he ran away). So in order to ensure that Paul doesn't get in trouble, he uses a simple ploy-he pretends to go mad. (Mad robots usually just ran around like crazies, but reportedly they sometimes gained magic powers that let them control people and other things like that. Hence, if he had been a mad robot, he would have kidnapped Paul instead of being stolen.)

This was completely outside of any possible programming parameters he might have had (he started his rampage by punching a guy out, and he was programmed so he couldn't hurt people). Further, it was pure suicide-the only sane response to a mad robot is to melt its head off with a ray gun. (Rex was saved by the fact that he wasn't mad, but happened to encounter another robot that was mad-when the other robot tried to run down some children, he stopped it, and a police sergeant, knowing he wasn't mad, switched him off instead.) Anyway, afterwards (at the end of the book), he was taken to the company who built him, which was going to try to figure out what made him such a weird robot. And they were going to let him stay with Paul, too.

Happy sappy ending, yeah, but it's a good read. And Rex is pretty tricky.

-Signing off.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Robot Week

Last year, I had an "unofficial" robot week.

This year, it's official. (And also not annual, as it's not at the same time as last year.)


Robots are awesome.

-Signing off.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Random Video Post

Well, that was anticlimactic...

Another theme week next week.

-Signing off.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Other Invasion

Thus far, I've talked primarily about the type of invasion that tends to involve the greatest possible number of explosions-the war invasion. Basically, the aliens show up, use guns or bombs, and kill everything in sight.

Then there's the other type of invasion, infiltration. Subtle manipulation, usually combined with mimicry, symbiosis/parasitism, and/or messages of peace are every bit as effective, if considerably less dramatic, than the explody kind of invasion.

In fact, they're probably considerably more efficient and effective, especially in circumstances that preclude using faster than light technology and warfleets (and if the invaders just want to kill us all and they can already build huge spacecraft, why don't they just drop rocks on us from orbit? It's not like we could do anything about it).

I like the first kind of invasion, but I'll admit that it's pretty stupid, all in all. With a few exceptions, most explody invasions don't make much logical sense.

It's just that the other kind of invasion is usually too boring to bother watching.

Sure, there are classic horror films and all that... but you can only do that so often before it gets repetitive and unintentionally self-parodic.

So if you see it done well and in original fashion, be sure to take note.

Yesterday (in essentially two sittings) I read Timothy Zahn's Odd Girl Out. It is the third in a series of books about a setting which I will refer to, for convenience, as the Quadrail setting.

I'll mention that Zahn is one of my favorite authors; he's probably my outright favorite among those who are still writing as of now. (This has little to do with Star Wars; while his Heir to the Empire trilogy introduced me to him, by this point that's just the icing on the cake of reading his works.) It's like reading mystery novels, except with more science fiction and (usually) fewer detectives and crime-solving.

Which makes the Quadrail setting ironic, because the main character of the setting, Frank Compton, is a private investigator.

Now, see, the brilliant thing about the setting is, interstellar travel is easy-radically so, in fact. To use a metaphor, travel within a solar system is like riding an ocean liner. Travelling from star to star is like riding an excessively fast train.

Yes, it takes days to travel around solar systems, but hours to go from here to the far end of the galaxy. Almost. (You actually have to go to the edge of any given solar system to reach the Quadrail, which is the space train, and implicitly, hitting the far end of the galaxy might take a day or two.)

Part of the point of this is that, in this case, there's no parallel between the void of space and the oceans. There are no fleets of battle craft, because spacecraft can't travel that far. (Don't ask me how the setting got built-I've only read the third book.)

So all international conflict must occur through the space trains.

And it turns out that there's a hive-minded alien intelligence who uses the space trains to get around just as easily as anyone, because it is based on nearly undetectable parasites that can control their hosts' minds (anything from subtle twists of behavior to full out hostile takeovers).

And of course, the scary thing is that the only people who are fighting against it are the private investigator and a few of his friends. And the hive mind doesn't care much about its individual tools.

That's some enjoyable reading right there, and I'm not even a big fan of detective stories, Sherlock Holmes aside.

-Signing off.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Other War of the Worlds: Edison's Conquest of Mars

Back in the day, "copyright" meant something very different from what it means now. It referred specifically and only to the right to publish a certain book-notions of intellectual property verged on nonexistent.

So when the (illegitimate and at least somewhat mangled) adaptation of the original serial version of The War of the Worlds (published under the name "Fighters From Mars-additional obscenely long subtitle") proved hugely popular, it was decided that a sequel should be commissioned, since none were forthcoming from Wells himself.

Edison's Conquest of Mars (yes, really) was written by one Garret P. Serviss, an astronomer and science fiction author... who pretty clearly had never read The War of the Worlds (at least, not enough of it to write a sequel). What resulted was eighteen chapters of what can be best described as insanity.

Well, perhaps that's doing it a disservice. But it's no TWotW.

Now, I don't know how similar "Fighters From Mars" was. Perhaps the differences between Edison's Conquest of Mars and TWotW are the fault of the adaptation, rather than some other factor. Certainly, the Martians of ECoM feel something like a tidied up, sanitized version of the other Martians.

But first things first. Let's talk about Thomas Edison's role in Edison's Conquest of Mars.

Apparently, all Edison did in real life was rubberstamp his name being in the book. Otherwise, he wasn't the least bit involved in production. (Wikipedia does describe it, quite amusingly, as "perhaps the most literal of the Edisonades.") In the book itself, well, it's pretty crazy.

First off, Edison was able to examine the antigravity devices in the Martians' flying machines (he immediately understood their functionality because they work via electricity, and if there's one thing Thomas Alva Edison understands, it's electricity![/sarcasm]), and determined how to make a super-powerful version of it that could be used to travel from planet to planet. Yes. It took him, like, fifteen minutes.

(Images of scans from the serial borrowed from here.)

Then, he made a disintegrator ray. This ray only destroys specific substances it's attuned to. As is typical of Edison, he tested it on an animal first for no good reason. (If you think I'm being a little harsh on Edison, well, I'll be frank-I'm not a big fan of the man. That's probably because I've read too much about him and his publicity campaigns.)

So then he and all the world's governments put their resources together and made a warfleet of a hundred spaceships crewed by two thousand guys or so (exact figures escape me-it's not like it's important) and set out to make sure the Martians can never attack Earth again.

The Martians are, as noted, very different from those of TWotW, but one doesn't actually notice this at first. This is mainly because the book takes its time to get to them. Once you get there, the differences couldn't be more obvious.

First, while some general bits of technology (heat rays, explosively propelled "cars"-that is, spacecraft, etc.) exist in common, there's one pretty radical difference-the Martians are essentially big, ugly humans.

Ugh. In fact, all dominant species from all inhabited worlds in this weird universe are essentially humans with some difference. The entirety of the difference in natural genetics? Size.

For instance, the Martians are fifteen feet tall on average (Martian women average more like twelve to thirteen). A member of an exinct race of Moon men left a five-foot-long footprint. And there was a woman from the asteroid Ceres who was forty feet tall.

Note that every single female of any species that qualifies for a mention (not counting governmental figures, who weren't described anyway) was extremely beautiful.

Why were Martian men ugly while Martian women were beautiful? Because Martian men had their brains artificially stimulated to be smarter in specific fields, while Martian women were given very broad, general educations. (Debunked pseudoscience, of course-the cranial deformation idea was based on phrenology.)

Anyway, supposedly, the Martian scientist caste didn't even need to do research-they simply knew all the natural laws. Therefore, 1) they weren't technically scientists (a scientist is fundamentally a researcher, y'know), and 2) they had developed the most sophisticated technology it was possible to develop... on Mars.

This of course begs the question of why they had to build cruddy cannon-launched spaceships, while Edison could build craft that were far superior to modern (by which I mean, modern in the present) spacecraft, ones that could make the journey to Mars in a matter of a month and a half or so, which is pretty incredible. There is an explanation, but it's a lame one: Earth has certain elements Mars doesn't, and these proved necessary for construction of the disintegrators (which were much deadlier than heat rays, since they turned stuff to vapor in an instant) and antigravity devices. Earth is better than Mars, nyeah nyeah nyeah!

Ahem. Ultimately, that's sort of the message we get-Earth is better than anyone else. (The story is pretty unabashedly imperialistic, so this isn't terribly surprising.) Of course, there's an issue with this-the Martians used to rule Earth.

Yeah. In ancient times, Mars invaded Earth, kidnapped a bunch of people, built the Great Sphinx and the pyramids, and then... um, left when Earth germs started killing them... or something?

Sheesh, the Martians were dummies if that's true.

The book has a lot of surprisingly strong points-it describes space better than you'd think, for one. (On the other hand, it turns out that a comet has a gigantic electrical charge and traps the electrically driven spaceships in its tail. So, yeah, what?) It also can claim the title of "first space opera."

So, if you like TWotW, well, you might consider reading this, and finding out about the numerous other things I didn't mention, like the asteroid made of gold. (Oops, mentioned it!) But don't be surprised if you feel a need to throw it to the floor when he starts talking about Aryans being the people from the Garden of Eden... Um, yeah.

-Signing off.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ten Things About The War of the Worlds...

...which you may or may not be aware of.

1. H. G. Wells introduced his version of the Martians in an earlier story called "The Crystal Egg." Whether he had intended specifically at that time for the Martians to become invaders in The War of the Worlds is not entirely known; certainly, this story did not directly foreshadow the invasion. The titular "crystal egg" was used by the Martians (along with a number of other unknown "eggs") as spying devices. Each egg was linked to an identical one on Mars, and in the right lighting, certain individuals could see Mars in the egg. (It was a rather Lovecraftian story, actually.) The same year, Wells also published "The Star," which offhandedly mentioned that Martian astronomers had witnessed the events of the story (namely, the formation of a new star and its near collision with Earth, followed by this star plunging into the Sun).

2. The Martians' tripods were probably made primarily out of an aluminum alloy, based on the fact that the Martians were busy refining it out of local clay in one of their bases. Certainly, they made heavy use of the stuff. The fact that they could effortlessly refine it out of common clay is one of the few areas where Wells' Martians still far surpass us.

3. Mars is a dead world, but it may be considerably "less dead" than one would think. Note that I take the following statement with a grain of salt, but it's a highly interesting possibility. Some self-appointed "Mars expert" believes that Mars may have harbored a living civilization as little as a few tens of thousands of years ago (give or take). Why? There is evidence that a large body of some kind may have come within Mars' Roche limit and shattered, thus bombarding the world with thousands of meteoric bodies and utterly wiping out life on its surface. (The same guy suggests that three particularly large impacts linked with this event created Olympus Mons and two other large extinct volcanoes on Mars' surface. Of course, Olympus Mons is supposed to be a really geologically ancient volcano...)

4. The War of the Worlds is part of the period genre from Victorian/Edwardian Britain called invasion literature. Britain was really worried at that time about some country slipping past the British Navy and invading the British Isles. While the British Army was an efficient force, it wasn't much taken seriously by the European powers; Chancellor Bismarck is said to have remarked that, if the British Army landed for an assault on Germany, he would "send the police to deal with them." Europe's armies were far larger and more powerful than Britain's, and both sides knew it; thus, Europe dreamed of landings, while Britain had nightmares. The most notable novel of the genre other than The War of the Worlds is probably The Battle of Dorking, whose name I am not making up. It is thought that the main reason Wells had knowledge of then-modern military tactics and technology is because of familiarity with the rest of the genre.

5. It is not a coincidence that Dracula was published only the year before. Imperial Britain was well aware of the fact that its position was rather precarious in the world, held in place only by the incomparable British Navy. The Navy was required to protect shipping from piracy by other nations, to keep order in the British dominions, and of course for self-defense. These things were the lifeblood of the British Empire. Britain's fascination at this time with vampires-Dracula and the Martians-was because it was well aware that it was essentially itself a vampire feeding off of its colonies.

6. As with the later "The Land Ironclads," Wells successfully predicted a future development in warfare; where in TLI he predicted tanks, in TWotW, he predicted the use of poison gas, which like the tank became a fixture of the Great War years later. He also predicted the use of "total war" tactics to some degree, although this may not have been as intentional.

7. Cannons would make incredibly impractical devices for launching objects into space for a huge variety of reasons, including difficulty in aiming over such distances and the amount of acceleration that would be required for such a launch being lethal to any living thing and strenuous on even the sturdiest of equipment.

8. Well, let's be frank-the ending of TWotW was great in its day. But it's horribly dated, too. That bacteria would somehow fail to exist on Mars is absolutely preposterous, Martian science wiping them out or no. It's not so preposterous that their immune systems would have difficulties with Earth microbes, but if the Martians were truly so advanced, they would have been able to protect themselves somehow. (This becomes even more ridiculous, really, in Spielberg's version, since those Martians are clearly as much above 21st century humans in terms of technology as Wells' Martians were above 19th century man.)

9. Many people describe the Martians as being "invincible" to the British forces; while they were close, they clearly fell short of this, as a well-placed artillery shell could kill one. (That was why they started using the Black Smoke, since the heat rays would have taken too long and possibly have been too expensive for killing all the artillery they might encounter.) This meant that the tripods were at a minor disadvantage in the water, as ships had more and better artillery and greater mobility than land forces; of course, they were even more vulnerable to the heat rays. A naval ship proved able to kill two Martian tripods, though, so the Martians would have had difficulty leaving Britain, had they not been building flying machines.

10. There was a sequel. But Wells didn't write it. More on that tomorrow.

-Signing off.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Greatly Belated Book Reviews: The First Men In The Moon

I'll give you a brief summary first. Then, see if it's what you expect.

Two aliens mysteriously appear to some ranchers, behaving wildly and falling unconscious. The ranchers take them back to the edge of civilization, and someone comes to take them to the capital, where attempts to communicate with them can be made. Unfortunately, one of the aliens then displays massive strength, and seemingly without provocation breaks free and kills several, then freeing the other alien. Both of them flee pursuit, and nearly lose the posse sent after them. They are nearly caught in a workshop, but the vicious alien takes several long, heavy tools and uses them as clubs, slaughtering many. The aliens flee into the wilderness. The savage one disappears, but the other is crippled, and proves to be peaceful, and is taken in by the posse, now lead by several important officials. With great effort, expert linguists learn the alien's language, and he is taken before the king. He reveals that the aliens as a whole are violent, greedy, and very warlike, and that he was responsible for the means by which he and the other arrived and has been contacting others. Horrified, the king has him put to death.

Yes, that's a summary of The First Men in the Moon, by H. G. Wells. Of course, it's from the Selenites' point of view...

Of course, there are other things about TFMitM that make it pretty weird by modern standards. There's the fact that the Moon has air, of course (amusingly, it froze overnight-the Moon's not that cold, you know-it might possibly condense, but it's not likely to freeze); there's also the fact that the Moon is mostly hollow. (The Selenites related that they were shocked to learn that intelligent life could exist on the Earth, as it was not hollow and the people couldn't survive by going underground.) If you're willing to forgive the odder bits of it, though, the Moon's setup is quite ingenious.

The Selenites (also called mooneys, though only when Cavor, who is the human who stays with them, communicates with them-ironically they're never called Selenites to their faces) are basically extremely large ant people. While they are equipped with only four limbs and don't have antennae, the Selenites are arthropods. Like ants, they have specialized castes, and have taken this to a greater extreme, thanks to knowledge of surgery, hormonal therapy (well, drug treatments, but more or less the same thing), binding (when I say this, I'm trying to evoke foot binding, which was a painful and degrading process practiced by the traditional Chinese to make women's feet small-of course, the Selenites did this to whole bodies), and other methods. This means that some Selenites have disproportionately massive arms or heads and the like. This is taken to its greatest extreme with the Grand Lunar (the king mentioned in my summary), who has a head so massive that it has to be cooled by artificial means, and is constantly dripping and cascading with water as a result, and a body and face which are so tiny together that it took Cavor a while to even notice they were there.

The various Selenite castes, except for the administrators, are essentially living tools to perform specialized tasks. A drawing specialist, for instance, is described thusly:

"M'm--M'm--he--if I may say--draw. Eat little--drink little--draw. Love draw. No other thing. Hate all who not draw like him. Angry. Hate all who draw like him better. Hate most people. Hate all who not think all world for to draw. Angry. M'm. All things mean nothing to him--only draw. He like you ... if you understand.... New thing to draw. Ugly--striking. Eh?"

That is, "this fellow draws. He doesn't eat or drink much. He loves to draw, but doesn't love anything else. He hates people who don't draw. He hates people who draw better than he draws. He hates most people. He hates people who think the world isn't there to draw. There is no meaning for him except drawing. He likes you because you're a new thing to draw. You're ugly and stand out. Do you understand?"

This is Wells criticizing the way that Industrial Britain treated its workforce. From his perspective, people were treated like parts of a machine, which isn't pleasant at all.

Of course, I don't buy Wells' perspectives on government, but I would definitely agree with some of his points here.

There's one other thing to mention-Cavorite. This is really the most off-the-wall part of the book, even worse than air on the moon. Cavorite is a metal that is somehow opaque to gravity. Huh?

Granted, our understanding of gravity has been influenced by Einstein's relativity, but it's still pretty crazy. (Even crazier is the fact that helium was involved in its construction.)

Aside: A similar story in some respects from earlier in Wells' body of work is In the Abyss. This story features an explorer, improbable travel physics, and an unknown, mysterious civilization where we didn't think there was one. (Google it. It's not one of the better-known ones, and even Project Gutenberg seems to have neglected it.)

The explorer intends to look for life on the ocean floor. His diving sphere travels so fast, it heats up from friction, and at one point renders him unconscious. Not smart.

The civilization was actually somewhat plausible, if improbable: A group of gilled, vaguely fishlike, vaguely humanoid creatures lived on the ocean floor. They know about us in the vaguest possible way-whenever a ship sinks, they find it. And as a result, they worship humans, because wow, ships falling out of their "sky" is pretty amazing. So when the explorer goes down the second time, they don't let him leave.

I like this little story, because it's atmospheric and creepy. If you can get a hold of it somehow, I'd recommend it.

Tomorrow, I'll talk about the grandaddy of all invasions.

-Signing off.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Alien Invasion Week

They're coming.

Yes, that's right.

Posts on alien invasions.

Run for your lives!

-Signing off.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Theme Weeks

I've actually got a certain amount of content planned out at this point, but little of it is usable today.

What, exactly, do I mean?

I currently have two theme weeks (something I've only done once) planned out to a workable degree. Having no particular plans for when to do them, I'm probably going to do them over the next two weeks.

This kind of ties up my current plans for blogging content. And YouTube isn't working right now, so random video embeds are out.

But rest assured, ATT fans (all 4.7 of you), you'll get solid content for two weeks, give or take fifteen minutes. Lots of book reviews, actually (I've been going through a stack).

Also, stupid post scheduler still is not working. Was there an announcement that I missed or something? For crying out loud.

-Signing off.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Writing Techniques: Finding Voice

Voice is something that's difficult to capture for many authors; I've done two columns on it already, and obviously had the idea to do another, since I'm writing this.

An important part of using "voice" as I defined it in those columns is "finding" it. You have to know what you want from voice before you try to use it, and you have to know what form the voice will take.

Writing, say, Sherlock Homes can be tricky, especially since you are not liable to be from Victorian/Edwardian England. A simple tip for "finding" it is immersion.

What does this mean? Read the heck out of any relevant source material. If you want a colloquial accent of some kind, do a bit of research into it and find out what the odder parts mean, and then write some practice.

An even better option, if you can manage it, is to try talking that way. After all, if you're writing something, it's either going to be said at some point, or people will be trying to imagine it being said. This can be easier than it sounds-I frequently adopt accents (sometimes-well, often-unintentionally) after reading a lot of period fiction. (I currently sound just a smidgen Victorian English myself, actually. Unusual for an Ohioan living over a hundred years after Victoria's death.)

This is only significant, of course, if you don't want all your characters to sound just like you. If you for some reason don't mind the idea of all of your characters sounding like clones of you, well, nobody's stopping you. (And some people will read/watch your stuff without noticing, but somebody's likely to pick up on it and complain.)

Well, that's all I have to say (heh) on voice for now. Here's hoping (once more) that I won't come up with a lot more to say by tomorrow.

-Signing off.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Greatly Belated Book Reviews: The Time Machine

Hm, hm, hm. Usually, I review obscure books here. The Time Machine is one of the most famous, iconic, and important novels in the science fiction genre. What to say about it?

Well, first off, it's one of my least favorite of Wells' works. There, I said it.

Partly, this is probably because of my first impression, which was not particularly good. At about the same time I first read the book, I watched the 1960 film as part of the class which I read it for. (Er, if memory serves. It's a bit hazy back there.) The film was, well, kinda terrible, and it wasn't made any better by the idiot in class who made dirty jokes about the name of the Time Traveller's Eloi companion (Weena).

The fact that Wells actually had written an earlier story about time traveling (and further, it had a time machine in it-of course, time machines get their name from The Time Machine) is not terribly well-known.

Also, there is a passage which exists in one version of The Time Machine and not the "standard" version. (While TTM was released as a serial, the editor wanted to push the human degeneracy angle of the Morlock/Eloi time period; Wells didn't like being dictated to, and had it excised when the material was published as a novel. But of course, the passage still exists, and was even made into a short story of its own. One version of the book I read does indeed have the "grey man" passage in it.)

It is interesting that the subject of human degeneracy/evolution covered in the novel is one people still explore to one degree or another. Dougal Dixon, for instance, explores an ecosystem of numerous different kinds of humans who filled niches, and there's a short story whose name I don't recall where a quite extensive human ecosystem arises.

The primary legacy of The Time Machine, obviously, is that it elaborated on the idea that someone could be displaced in time through controllable means. (I would say it introduced the idea, but it obviously didn't. It really just popularized it.) But as a story, TTM is rather boring, and that's comparing it to Wells' other works. Still, it's his first real novel, so that's forgivable.

I'll get to some better ones, like The First Men in the Moon and The War of the Worlds, pretty soon here.

-Signing off.