Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Ascension and Interstellar - is boldness back in style?

A mission launched to save civilization…in 1963? See the trailer for Syfy's bold new miniseries -- Ascension -- due to air on December 15. 

I consulted this show about an Orion-style colony-escape vessel launched toward the stars in 1963. I cannot predict or vouch for the final result, yet. But the concepts are excellent and the vibe is simply exquisite. 

See a writeup here: Ascension: Could Mankind Really Survive 100 Years in Space... plus a video interview where I discuss the science behind the show.  Well, in fact, they seem to have edited a real whiz-bang intro out of my comments on the endeavor. Enjoy!

Ascension debuts in 6 episodes over three nights, starting December 15.

== Going Interstellar ==

We saw INTERSTELLAR in an IMAX theater.  It was worth paying extra! I could concoct a hundred quibbles.  Maybe I will, someday.  But it is simply awful that so many of us nerdy types deny ourselves the pleasure of a vivid flick, by going in with prickly eagerness to carp and nitpick! Do what I do.  Set aside that part of your personality to take notes "for later"... then tell that part to "shut the F#*! up and let me enjoy this!"

To receive this gift the way the creator of it intended. The way I might appreciate a late Monet, despite the blurriness caused by his cataracts.

Having done that, I sat back and wallowed in what is simply the best movie I have seen in this century. 

Don't get me wrong... I still have both scientific and storytelling critical faculties. There are serious nits to pick, and I have a list.  Indeed, there are one or two that might be serious enough to ask Mr. Nolan to insert 30 seconds into a director's cut (moral implications).  

But I am determined to wait a bit, to let the initial glow settle....  I am simply way too happy with 4.95 stars. And knowing Mr. Nolan can continue to do whatever he wants to do.

We need stories about confident daring and belief in ourselves.

Oh, for a look at the science behind the movie, take a look at Caltech physicist Kip Thorne's book, The Science of Interstellar.

For another point of view, take a look at Futurist John Smart’s appraisal: Saving Interstellar: A Mental Rewrite of Chris Nolan's Latest Masterpiece.

== Another Nolan... another great Sci Fi Epic? ==

Exciting news... Christopher Nolan's brother and partner Jonathan has announced that his own next project will be to craft -- for HBO -- Isaac Asimov's epochal Foundation Trilogy! Naturally, I am excited, since I wrote the final book in Isaac's magnum opus, tying together all the loose ends in Foundation's Triumph.  But here's more...

Starting with a pair of iO9 essays about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Robots universe that has inspired writers from Douglas Adams to George Lucas, and public figures as varied as Paul Krugman and Newt Gingrich. In 1966, the Foundation Trilogy received the Hugo Award for Best All-Time Series, beating out the Lord of the Rings. And also – apparently -- Interstellar's Jonathan Nolan, who announced he would be writing and producing the adaptation of Isaac’s grand and sweeping science fictional epic.

Part of both reader fascination and dissatisfaction with Isaac's series arose from what I have long thought was the series's greatest hallmark - though seldom mentioned -- the fact that Isaac was constantly arguing with his earlier selves!  First, in the 1940s, he asserted we can model human behavior as gas molecules are modeled purely with statistics. 

But then, a later Isaac objected that there are perturbations! So he solves it with a Second Foundation that guides human events in ways that nudge the Seldon Plan's momentum back on track. 

"But --" a still later Isaac complains "--now you get an inherent ruling caste!" So he over-rules the Second Foundation's human master race with... robots!  The perfect court eunuchs, loyal and incorruptible... 

...only then he realizes: "Robots and humans have reversed roles!  The servants are few and all-powerful and controlling and the "masters" are numerous as grains on a million beaches, helpless and too silly to be trusted."

Can't have that. So he comes up with Gaia/Galaxia, in which humanity rises up higher than the robots in a single leap to a unified mega-mind, as in Arthur Clarke's Childhood's End...

... till still-later-Isaac realizes that humanity now will be squashed into sameness, one mind, thinking one thought. Indeed, he started pondering how to resolve this quandary. 

In fact, there were some pretty clear hints where Isaac intended to go next! In a wonderful head-fake that would take his whole cosmos full-circle! Alas, he was unable to finish the series.

We "Killer Bees"  - Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and myself -- were asked by Janet and Robin Asimov to do the "Second Foundation Trilogy"  though each of our novels aimed to accomplish different things.  While my own capstone novel (Foundation's Triumph) tied loose ends and followed Isaac's hints toward a final resolution of the tales of both Seldon and R. Daneel Olivaw, Greg Bear's book - Foundation and Chaos - closely scrutinized the implications of running a galactic empire and Benford's Foundation's Fear... well... Gregory had a lot of fun.  You will too.

As did I, reading Mark Strauss's rambling exploration-insightful decryption of one of the greatest of all sci fi future histories.  

Here's hoping the Nolan boys will (again) make us proud.


Acacia H. said...

As I mentioned in the last post, there is a rather enjoyable short scifi film on YouTube that one of my friends cued me in on. The only significant problem is the lack of an ending - it has an episodic feel to it, but didn't even give us a cliffhanger feel or the like.

Also, it appears the Star Wars fan-film series I.M.P.S. - The Relentless has a second chapter out though this is older news. Still, I like the more human touch and bits of humor they give the Imperial Stormtroopers. And with luck the third chapter will be released soon. (As an aside, I must admit I geeked out when it dawned on me that Peter Cullen was narrating the series. I guess he's a Star Wars fan, and I must admit it's rather nifty that he voiced the first two parts (and hopefully will voice future segments).

Rob H.

Dan Eastwood said...

I am still holding out for more Foundation books from the Killer B's. Don't think for a minute no one noticed the setup for a Hari Seldon clone!

Acacia H. said...

Ah, but which one was the clone? Would it not be amusing if they made an elderly Seldon clone to be rescued, and sent the real Sheldon into the future? And would not Daneel hesitate before acting against Seldon if it were truly him, rather than a clone? And there was proof of that?

Rob H.

David Brin said...

Dang... TWO people actually got it? I sometimes wonder if anyone catches some of my easter eggs.

If I had the Kiln people copier I would write that sequel in a shot.

Duncan Cairncross said...

You mention the "Killer Bees" Foundation novels

What about Donald Kingsbury's Psychohistorical Crisis ???

I love your books but I found Kingsbury's book to be a real masterpiece and in many ways much more true to the original Foundation Trilogy but with it all working

Jim Baca said...

I went back to see Interstellar for a second time. It was even better. I look forward to an HBO series on Foundation. I also hear sporadically SCIFi is producing one one on "Childhood's End". But info is sketchy. Have you heard anything?

Zen Cosmos said...

I also saw Interstellar in IMAX and mostly agree with you sentiments...but read my wall comments on my timeline to delve deeper-you were tagged to do that anyway...hopeful about Foundation...seems better adaptable as a sprawling large mini series like from the 70s-80s rather than a movie or series of movies...

Rob Perkins said...

Interstellar was plenty beautiful with a 2D 4K projection, regular price. David was right about shelving science nitpicks. The human story was good enough (as in, really, really good) to forgive.

locumranch said...

"There were some pretty clear hints where Isaac intended to go next! In a wonderful head-fake that would take his whole cosmos full-circle!"

David has made this 'full-circle' comment before, implying that Asimov intended to take the Foundation back to 'The Last Question' -- playing god by reversing entropy and self-creating -- a plot device that blew my mind when I was 10 but now seems like a cop-out on par with 'and then he woke up', so maybe it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.


David Brin said...

Kingsbury is both brilliant and -- i say it as a friend -- completely bonkers. His COURTSHIP RITE -- is the most brilliantly conveyed image of a society utterly without government.One would nOT want to live there... but welldone.

loccum's "playing god by reversing entropy and self-creating" interpretation of my "full circle" assertion is so utterly bizarre and unrelated to what I made utterly clear to be the meaning... that I recall why we keep him around. It's like having a resident alien -- a grouchy one -- whose logic is completely non-human.

Strangely... I kind of like it! One out of five times, his misinterpretations actually make me ponder something I hadn't, before. In the context and safety of the blogmunity, it is a craziness with far more benefits than drawbacks.

Acacia H. said...

Was it Existence that pondered the concept of aliens infesting our Internet and pretending to be people, if only in passing?

DP said...

I could never get into the Foundation series.

But I would love someone to make KSR's "Red/Green/Blue Mars" series.

Or do a decent remake (with a big enough budget, unlike the SyFy channel) of Dune, Dune Messiah and Children of Dune. Maybe when HBO gets done with GoT it can give Dune the same quality treatment.

Does the Baroque Cycle count as SF?

And what ever happened to the mini series of PKD's "Man in the High Castle" - the only PD work that hasn't made it to the big or little screen yet.

DP said...

Just because of some namby-pamby Test Ban Treaty we can't push massive interplanetary vessels across the solar system at high speeds and relatively low cost. What's wrong with exploding nukes in space? Hello! ? there is no environment to pollute! The rads given off by a fleet of Orions would be insignificant compared to background radiation.

Speaking of fleets, heck we could even have a properly space armada defending all our new colonies, asteroid mining operations, methane extraction facilities and dilithium crystal trade routes. My kids would be seeing the first expedition to Alpha Centauri. History will see Project Orion as a major missed opportunity.

Somewhere the spirits of Gene Roddenberry and Robert Heinlein are weeping.

DP said...

Crunching the numbers for an Orion like nuclear pulse spacecraft....

Ho much energy would it take to accelerate a vessel 10x the mass of the ISS to 10% of c?

What is the total energy of the world's nuclear arsenals?

Tony Fisk said...

Possibly because it was, in essence, a survival story, I enjoyed 'Gravity' without having to wind the filters up, even though I afterward realised it was glorying in the destruction of our space infrastructure. (Um, thanks?)

I don't want to present a nit list for 'Interstellar' here, other than to say that, as a movie pitched to the intelligence, I felt obliged to keep the filters down, and was sitting there muttering 'but... but...'

This wasn't as dreary as it sounds because I've since had the occasional *AHA!* moment, and been able to cross off a couple of items.

(btw I've decided Trailer #2 is the best one, probably because of the music)

smitpa said...

I like Orion type ships in principle but I see two issues. Launch from ground level will be dirty. Packing boron around the pulse units will help but there will still be fallout. The other issue is EMP (look up starfish prime). Kind of self defeating if you take out all the satellites in direct view of the ship. The nice thing about Orion is it scales up real well. a million ton Mars colony is possible on one ship.

David Brin said...

Paul Smith see Niven & Pournelle's FOOTFALL for orions launched directly from Earth, as an emergency move.

Robert yes it was Existence.

Duncan Cairncross said...

"His COURTSHIP RITE -- is the most brilliantly conveyed image of a society utterly without government"

Not at all - the priest clans competed to become the governments

I loved the "BattleGod" and "HelicopterGunGod"

In Psychohistorical Crisis I loved the discussions about scalability of democracy
and the loss of information making processes asymmetrical and irreversible

Tim H. said...

Daniel Duffy, I believe the worry was bomb residue swept up in the Earth's magnetosphere and carried down, a plausible 2% increase in cancer rates worldwide, so you'd want a VERY good reason to launch one from Earth, or operate it closer than the Moon. But what a great way to deflect a dinosaur killer, with sufficient warning, that is.

Paul451 said...

Re: Consulting Ascension

Is there a plausible justification for the continuous 1g for 50 years without rotating elements (or near-C velocity), or is that just one of the areas you washed your hands of?

Jonathan S. said...

The problem with Orion-drive nukes in space? In order to use them, you have to get them into space - and there's that moment when there's a load of nuclear weapons orbiting overhead, and politicos in every nation begin panicking about the idea that they might just be dropped instead...

David Brin said...

Hey I did my best. I tried to show them that there weren't enough H Bopmbs in 1963 to even get to Mars, and exploding those would not give a semblence of gravity... but assume there was a top secret breakthrough that gave them pellet fusion? Then the plot might work....

We'll see if they listened to anything at all...

Anonymous said...

Possibly interesting, but all of that content isn't available where I live (Canada).

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Daniel Duffy,
Your mention of Robert Heinlein brought back a childhood memory for me. The guy actually lived in my home town for several years, in a ritzy-rich neighborhood called the Broadmore. My 5th grade teacher, who introduced me to his books, told me that he was essentially driven out of the neighborhood by a coalition of husbands who had grown tired of his philandering. Given the subjects of some of his books (including some of his best) this shouldn't be a big surprise. But I wonder if it would be missed opportunities for interstellar travel he would be shedding tears for in his afterlife...

Sorry I haven't had a chance to answer your question since before Dr. Brin's last cry of "onward!" I had unexpected company from out of hemisphere show up at my door. You had asked about oil formation processes and how common they would be. Since this isn't an area I know a lot about (and Googling isn't always reliable), I asked the geology teacher 2 doors down about it. He went on at some length, so I think he was glad to get a real geology question for a change. Anyway, what I got from that conversation was that oil formation is really very common. It mostly comes from micro-organisms (not so much from dinosaurs) and commonly happens in fluvial and lacustrine deposits (rivers, lakes, swamps & bogs) as well as shallow ocean contexts. There are many places all over the world where oil is forming as we speak, the Amazon Basin being a prime example.

However, formation isn't the whole story. Oil deposits in sedimentary rocks can be dispersed by a rising water table, and frequent changes to a water table can be expected over the millions of years it takes for microflora to turn into fossil fuel. What you need is a context that would create less porous rocks to trap the oil in place - what they call a capstone. Volcanic eruption can do this easily, so anywhere you have volcanoes in tropical areas, like Indonesia or the Andes, you have some solid potential for creating extractable oil deposits. Likewise metamorphic processes, which is why there is so much oil on continental shelves, and around folded mountains.

As to oil on other worlds, it is entirely plausible that we will one day find oil on Mars, and any planet similar enough to our own that could harbor carbon-based life would be highly likely to have oil as well. Perhaps my concerns about timing are not very meaningful, then.

Happy cogitation

Nicole Tedesco said...

With respect to John M. Smart's "mental rewrite", I found myself performing that little dance in my own head as I was watching the movie. In my mental version of "Interstellar",

The blight was a purposefully designed doomsday weapon deployed by a radicalized environmental/anti-human faction and Earth's societies had simply retreated into a "popular", nihilistic philosophy in the wake of the wars that were mentioned (probably started by the group that designed the life-destroying disease). We had seen a little of this attitude in the wake of WWI.

Humanity may have had indeed destroyed itself.

The multi-dimensional beings may indeed exist at some point in the future, and might be trying to affect an "Omega Point" scenario in which they, as powerful demigods in their own right, attempt to recreate various pasts for their own purposes. I imagined them re-creating, in a very literal Omega Point sense, humanity but giving us a little help to allow us to live. Our heroes may or may have not existed in our "timeline", but may have been injected by the demigods to help recreate humanity and give us a future. No backwards time travel necessary! All of it was part of the recreation (in a substrate that gives us "souls" and honest life).

Alex Tolley said...

The problem of oil (and mineral) formation is time. If our civilization collapses, we would want a recovery within a few thousand years. In which case global civilization II is SOL. In millions of years, humans will have evolved or gone extinct. We have no idea if another intelligent species will replace us. Only then can they use such fossil fuels. But bear in mind that coal is mostly Carboniferous, a once in a planetary lifetime event so far. So coal, which powered much of the industrial revolution is unlikely to ever be replaced with easily accessible deposits.

The good news is that trees will be abundant, so wood and charcoal can be used. But the supplies will always be limited as England discovered as it removed its forests for charcoal burning.

Even if AGW and health effects of fossil fuels were not an issue, it is our consumption of them at rates far exceeding replenishment that is a problem for a sustainable global civilization. They can only be a bridge fuel supply until we can use inexhaustible ones.

David Brin said...

The new Heinlein biography from Tor is in two parts. Very thorough... very interesting... though somewhat poorly written and a little politically tendentious. STill, a fascinating life.


Anonymous said...

I went to see Interstellar at our local Imax. To lift your words out of context (as review blurbs often do), it was "simply awful", a real waste of my time and money.

I know about suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy certain fictions, but I couldn't keep it going. To spend so much effort to get the black hole physics correct (or at least credible) and then to disregard basic mechanical engineering lost it for me. You don't just spin up and spin down a massive circular spaceship with a few puffs from thrusters - it's weightless but still has a large inertia. And the part toward the end when parts of the spaceship were destroyed - those stresses would have torn the structure apart.

I went to see current state of the art special efforts, which I got. But aside from that everything was what I despise about what's coming out of Hollywood these days. (Not surprising as I'm the wrong demographic with the wrong tastes to be in their target audience.) The elevation of special effects above all else. Self-indulgence and excessive length. Incoherent character development. Cliched acting.

The Michael Caine character quoting Dylan Thomas once was moving. Twice was silly. A third time was just twee.

It is possible, even in today's movie market, to make an excellent science movie. Moon, for example. But I'm almost always let down.

One of my sons encouraged me to see Interstellar, texting me that it's 'spectacular'. After I wasted my time I texted back that it's 'spectacularly awful'.

Dan Eastwood said...

And if anyone is looking for specs on an Orion drive, start looking here: