Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Is Dystopia All We Can Foresee? (part 2)

Can we even take sci-fi seriously if it doesn't involve dystopic themes? The entertainment industry doesn't seem to think so, considering the conspicuously non-existent utopian stories in novels, TV series, and movies. Perhaps Agent Smith from the Matrix was right—do we “define our reality through misery and suffering?” The next time you turn on the “news” and listen to the various stories, take note of how most of them are negative. When you get together with your friends or family, do you find yourself updating your complaint list? It's difficult for us to deviate from these patterns because this is the society we live in and these are the habits we have grown accustomed to. Maybe it is unfair to blame sci-fi for being so dystopic. Doesn't it reflect real life?

Monday, March 30, 2015

Is Dystopia All We Can Foresee? (part 1)

Has science fiction always been dismal? When was the last time we can remember an uplifting utopia in sci-fi? Dystopia involves a society (usually in the future) where the conditions of life are extremely bad, whether from oppression, deprivation, or terror. Dystopias are all the rage now, but this wasn't always the case—the term “Utopia” was coined way back in 1516 with a book of the same name by Sir Thomas More. Yet when we think of science fiction, we almost always envision a dystopic society. Perhaps it is first portrayed as utopia, such as in the film, “The Island,” but we can almost depend on such stories having something nefarious underneath it all. Think about it for a moment. Consider this short list of popular sci-fi movies: The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Maze Runner. The Matrix. Demolition Man. Robocop. Blade Runner. Gattaca. I could go on, and on, and on, but can you name a sci-fi movie in the last 10, 15, or even 20 years that wasn't dystopic?

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Lure of Discovery (part 5)

Imagine what you would have felt like if the first Star Wars movie (episode IV) kept introducing characters, but never came back to any of them? We'd meet the droids, princess Leia, Darth Vader, Luke, Ben Kenobi, Han Solo, etc. but if new characters were continually introduced and never developed, we'd be overwhelmed and eventually ask ourselves, “What is the point?” Yet, if the opposite happened and we were only introduced to Darth Vader and the entire series of 6 movies was focused entirely on him, it could get a little boring. The fact that the story shifts around among the different characters and we get to see them develop and grow—that's a large factor in keeping the story balanced, between familiar material and new material. If the characters stayed the same and never developed (for instance, if Luke was always a whiny teen or if Darth Vader remained an unwaveringly evil asthmatic) things would get predictable and uninteresting. We need balanced amounts of change, and discovering that a character can grow and develop makes for some great excitement and intrigue!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Lure of Discovery (part 4)

Science fiction often has familiar themes that are balanced with themes that are new to us. It is difficult for a reader/audience to be thrown completely into an unfamiliar world where nothing is similar to our reality, though some authors (such as William Gibson) are quite skilled at testing these boundaries. It is important to have a balance, however, or the reader/audience might become overwhelmed with the new information and will give up on trying to become immersed in an unfamiliar world that they can’t relate to. However, if the world is too familiar, or even exactly the same as our reality, it is easily predictable and will likely be held to a much higher level of scrutiny if it deviates from reality in even a small way. Science fiction is a delicate balance to achieve, but when the ingredients are mixed correctly, it can stimulate the imagination in profound ways.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Lure of Discovery (part 3)

It is in our nature to seek after something new, though some of us more than others. We each have varying levels of interest and focus, but almost everyone arrives at a point where they eventually feel the need to leave the house, the state, or the country for a change. Others find more gratification in buying new clothes, technology, or entertainment (books, music, movies, games, etc.) New discoveries in science excite researchers as well, and even the discovery of a new species of insect or fish can be a monumental event in the scientific community. Science fiction satisfies our need for discovery, sometimes with the re-imagining of an entire society or futuristic world and other times with only a single, small concept that is different from our reality. Science fiction is a great outlet for our discovery-hungry yearning.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Lure of Discovery (part 2)

Popular video games often rely upon a formula that rewards exploration with exciting discoveries. Currently, “”No Man’s Sky” is a game in development that procedurally generates new worlds across a vast universe, as well as varied environments, ecosystems, and lifeforms. Though the game is due for release sometime during the summer of 2015, it is clear from the previews that the focus is on discovery. Other games have been tremendously successful with this formula already—consider Minecraft, a game that generates an entirely unique world for each player that the player must explore to gather materials necessary to craft and build. Perhaps it was just me, but I found Minecraft’s appeal was in exploring the world and digging deep within the earth to discover what might be down there.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Lure of Discovery (part 1)

The universe is a vast canvas for the imagination. It is untraveled, unexplored, and an unlimited source of inspiration for the science fiction writer. In the early days of oceanic exploration aboard sailing ships, the oceans were a great unknown—where did they lead, what lived in the unfathomable depths, and what other mysteries below the waves were waiting to be discovered? Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” was an immensely popular tale in its time, and its unique story about undersea exploration captured the imagination of many. Why is it that we so enjoy reading about other worlds, undiscovered territories, and amazing creatures such as the giant squid in Verne’s novel? Perhaps it is human nature to explore and hope to discover new worlds and creatures?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Warnings from the Past (part 5)

The problem is that we're willingly giving up too much control of our lives. AI is on the fast-track to replacing many of our jobs and decisions. We are already handing over our decisions to the government and letting them decide things for us, including how we should eat (with regulations and propositions currently in the works to prevent us from buying anything that is deemed unhealthy), what kind of vehicles we are allowed to drive, and even what types of light bulbs we are allowed to use. The freedom of the internet stands in complete opposition to those that seek to influence and control—just watch as they try to sneak regulations past us under the guise of “fairness.” Do we really want to place our trust in others, or even in an AI, to decide things for us? Technology can be a great thing, but when our freedoms disappear in the name of “progress,” how many more of our freedoms are we going to willingly sacrifice, and what is the future we leave for our children?

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Warnings from the Past (part 4)

John Brunner's 1975 novel, “The Shockwave Runner,” may be the first of the “cyberpunk” settings, though William Gibson's “Neuromancer” (1984) is more recognized for popularizing the genre. The cyberpunk sci-fi genre involves hackers that have rebelled against giant corporations that control, among other things, the information of the internet. Recently, it has become known that Google plans to rank websites based on factual content (and we're leaving it to them to determine truth?) Though this might seem like a convenience—it is already difficult to find exactly what you're looking for without sifting through unrelated websites—what standards will be used for determining truth? Will this affect searches regarding religion? What about political discussion, can the sorting of “truth” be done without any bias? This is a very slippery slope, and the freedom of information we have on the internet is in serious jeopardy. Already, certain governments in the world have strict control over what their citizens are allowed to access on the internet—are we to follow the same path? A responsibility here, a personal judgment there, our freedoms are being eroded away slowly by technology and those behind its implementation. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Warnings from the Past (part 3)

As technology is continually advancing into our personal lives, we are potentially looking at a future where Google Artificial Intelligence programs are going to drive our cars for us. Though it may seem a stretch right now, the day may come when all of our cars are equipped with AI; talk to any auto-mechanic, and they'll tell you that already, much of your car is run by a computer. AI-driven vehicles will likely be well-received if statistics show fewer accidents with the smart cars. Another benefit to them would be the freedom for passengers to do something else during a commute, such as play with their smart-phones or take a nap. Yet in movies like Total Recall (1990), Demolition Man (1993), and Minority Report (2002), there were instances where the passenger wanted manual control of the vehicle because the AI was not capable of handling the circumstances. How much control will we have over our cars in the future? For that matter, how safe will they be from some kind of corporate or government control, limiting where and when we travel? And what is to guarantee that hackers can't suddenly access and take control of our vehicle—it has already been done with remote drones!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Warnings from the Past (part 2)

George Orwell's novel, 1984, focuses on a totalitarian government that constantly monitors and manipulates the citizens in a dystopic society. The novel was written in 1949, and in 1984, such things were still thought to be far-fetched, though the Cold War did have us wondering if perhaps things could get that bad. However, as we look around us today, the Orwellian 1984 is looking like a very real possibility, with leaked information (see Edward Snowden and NSA) revealing that our own government is keeping records of our phone conversations, texts, and emails. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and other internet giants, in addition to phone companies such as Verizon, were all complicit in allowing NSA snooping. This is supposedly being done to catch terrorists, but is that line really being drawn? Political opponents, religious ideologies, and even mere personal opinions may trigger a closer look. It's not just the government that is listening in, either: Samsung has officially indicated that some of its newest Smart TV's will not only be listening, but any conversation you have around these TV's will be converted to text and stored. Despite the warning of Orwell's novel 66 years ago, look where we are already today!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Warnings from the Past (part 1)

I recently watched the 1983, American Cold War science-fiction film, “War Games.” This wasn't the first time I'd seen it, but it was interesting watching it again, 32 years after its release. Without giving any major spoilers to those of you that haven't seen it, the basic plot is that a hacker accidentally accesses a military Artificial Intelligence programmed to predict the possible outcomes of a nuclear war. The hacker unintentionally triggers the AI to begin scenarios that could result in an actual World War III. One disturbing aspect of the film is the military's push towards efficiency, and the human element is removed from important decision-making positions because of a record of inconsistency. Today, unmanned drones are becoming increasingly capable and autonomous via AI programs, and other areas of our military are being influenced as well, including DARPA's advanced robotics research. Names like “Joshua” and “Skynet” should mean something to anyone in AI development, yet even Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk's warnings seem to be going unheeded.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Alien Contact (part 5)

Of course, all of these steps assume quite a lot. One very large and common assumption held today is the belief that alien life will be simpler than us. It might be something very basic, in the form of a micro-organism, or if it is complex and sentient, it might still be in a very primitive state of civilization. Hostility, however, could easily result regardless of what stage an alien civilization has progressed to, because it is very likely that there will be pressure to preserve resources. Food, water, technology, or simply land itself all have been fought over in countless wars on earth. How often have we peacefully be in agreement when drawing up our borders? It is hard to imagine that things will be any different if we discover an intelligent alien species out there. Rather than hoping that they aren't more advanced technologically than we are, maybe it would be better to hope we don't find them at all. For their sakes, at least.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Alien Contact (part 4)

After abducting a few “samples” from the alien planet, we would then move to remote communication attempts with the sentient alien race, with the message that we are peaceful. Supposing the aliens were unaware that we had already poached some of their plants, animals, and a few citizens, perhaps it would be possible to convince them that we meant no harm. If this is achieved, then we would make appearances to the aliens, approaching in craft where we could be seen but not yet reached, hoping to be witnessed by as many of the inhabitants as possible. This would be done to prove our existence and to indicate that we are non-hostile. If we were convinced that there was no hostile intent from the aliens and that it was safe for both of us to be in contact, we would finally make face to face contact.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Alien Contact (part 3)

After observing alien life on another planet to determine their technological capabilities, our military would make brief touchdowns in unpopulated, isolated areas on the alien planet. They would gather specimens of the alien plants, animals, and eventually, even the intelligent alien beings! Abductions would be performed, and these lifeforms would be studied off-world, possibly even taken back to Earth! It's not difficult to see a host of problems arising from this step. Alien lifeforms might affect human physiology negatively in various ways, possibly communicating deadly microbes or even affecting us in ways we have not yet conceived. There's also the problem of “kidnapping” these lifeforms, and especially how it would be perceived if we “borrowed” one of their sentient people. But remember, we would only do all this if we determined that our technological capabilities exceeded those of the aliens. So it's ok. Right?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Alien Contact (part 2)

In 1950, the military designed a series of steps which are intended for the discovery of creatures with human-level sentience. These steps begin with remote surveillance and data gathering, with the goal of determining the capabilities of alien vehicles and weapons (if they have any.) If we judged that alien technology is inferior to ours, we would then begin near approaches—most likely with drones--to their planet to discern whether aliens would react with hostility to our presence. Though this seems logical, can we expect a peaceful reaction to being observed by an alien race? How would we react to an alien craft flying by our planet, or hovering as it observes us and records data? The unknown typically generates fear, and fear often results in aggression.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Alien Contact (part 1)

Signals in space were discovered in 2010, but were quickly dismissed as magnetic noise from distant stars, as “stellar bursts.” However, these signals have been re-examined recently, and astronomers are arriving at a different conclusion: these signals could be coming from a planet that might be in the “Goldilocks Zone,” meaning that it is just the right distance from its star--not too hot or too cold—it is potentially capable of supporting life. The planet is known in the scientific community at Gliese 581d, is twice the size of earth, and is 20 light years distance away. It might be a while before we can visit to confirm the presence of life, but if we could, what exactly is our protocol for the discovery of life on another planet?

Friday, March 6, 2015

A New Team of Recruits (part 5)

Characters can take on uncommon roles in Solar Echoes, though some races will have small limitations in those roles. For example, the Reln can roll 4 dice for Influence-based checks (Persuasion), which gives him a greater chance at rolling a high number. The Krissethi player from last weekend decided to be the diplomat, but Krissethi's normally only have 2 Influence dice. When creating a character, you are allowed to raise 1 racial attribute by 1 (to a maximum of 4,) so the Krissethi player decided she would apply that point to Influence. Her Krissethi was able to roll 3 Influence dice when making checks, which does produce a better chance of rolling a high number than 2 dice, but on average-- because of the Reln's 4 Influence dice--a Reln character will always do slightly better at Influence-based checks. In the end, it was a good move for the Krissethi to take on the role of diplomat, because the other character was the infamous Omul, which starts with a natural Influence of 1.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

A New Team of Recruits (part 4)

The martial-arts Archaeloid can be a brutal melee fighter, but a few things are necessary for this build to be effective in Solar Echoes. Enemies usually have armor, which makes it much more difficult for a martial-artist to do any damage to them. However, there are ways to circumvent this obstacle! If a character has a pair of spiked gauntlets and/or spiked boots, it allows him 1 point of armor penetration. On top of that, if the character invests in the “Strike the Weak Point” talent, he gains another point of armor penetration for unarmed melee attacks. If the character uses a Thrust Kick attack (a martial-arts talent), he can deal 3 damage to his opponent, and with the previous two factors added in, he would bypass 2 points of armor. Finally, some martial-arts talents are “chainable,” which means two chainable talents can be used in a single round. Thrust Kick happens to be one of those talents, so in a single round, the character can do 3 damage (armor piercing 2), TWICE a round if he hits both times. An opponent with 2 armor could suffer a total of 6 damage in a single round, which is enough to knock him into unconsciousness!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

A New Team of Recruits (part 3)

One of the players last weekend wanted a melee-focused character, so he chose the mighty Archaeloid. Archaeloid's have a solid shell encasing most of their body, so they have a natural armor rating of 2, which means two things: they don't have to buy armor and therefore have more starting money leftover to spend on other things, and they don't have to worry about armor degradation, because natural armor does not degrade like a suit of armor would. A normal suit of armor prevents some damage from going through to the wearer, but it also absorbs that amount of damage against its “hardness.” Once a suit of armor's hardness reaches 0, it can no longer absorb damage and is useless, needing to be replaced or repaired by an Engineer with appropriate skills. Natural armor doesn't mean that Archaeloids are exactly tanks, though—when hit by a weapon with armor piercing, even the Archaeloid's shell is ignored when damage is calculated!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

A New Team of Recruits (part 2)

Imagine the satisfaction of throwing an EMP grenade to see it bounce and land exactly where you wanted it to! The benefit to this is that in Solar Echoes, EMP grenades will blind targets that are in the center of the blast, but it is almost impossible to predict where the grenade will bounce when you declare where you're targeting. An added benefit to the EMP grenade is that it does double electrical damage to robots, so it is the perfect weapon to have around when facing angry drones. Grenades seem like the best weapon to stock up on for enemy encounters, but they do have some unfortunate risks—you might accidentally catch an ally in the blast radius, you might alert other nearby enemies when the grenade explodes, and there can be inconvenient lingering effects such as fire or irritating chemicals. So, know your grenades and use them judiciously—a thermal grenade near an ally that a robot just sprayed with oil...not good.

Monday, March 2, 2015

A New Team of Recruits (part 1)

I ran another new group of players through a couple missions this weekend, and it is always exciting to see people try new things in Solar Echoes. The players started by selecting the alien race they wanted to play, and then built their characters together, making sure that they had all bases covered between the three of them. One player, kind of an Archaeloid pugilist, wanted to focus on combat almost entirely, so he not only invested in firearms and melee skills, but in gunnery skills for both terrestrial vehicles and starship combat. Another player, an Omul hacker that enjoyed using robotic cyberweapons, spread his skills around a bit more—he also was the group's pilot. The third player, a sneaky Krissethi with some skills in persuasion, became the team's eyes and ears when scouting and was also a rather effective “face” (diplomat, con-artist). It was a very fun group, and their team had many exciting, creative, and funny moments during the mission.