Tuesday, February 28, 2012

February Science Round-Up

A lot of the science that makes mainstream news is downbeat and gloomy. We're destroying the planet. We're running out of resources. We still can't manage to feed the global population. We may be making progress against cancer and AIDS, but then we might not. Birth control could be illegal this time next year. Luckily, a lot of the scientific research and advances are positive and awesome, to counter the trend. I much prefer the future they show.

On the medicine front, we now have a powerful acoustic microscope sensitive enough to hear microbes, if we can only find a way to make it work outside lab conditions. A British company has designed a gene sequencer in a USB stick, which makes sequencing portal and fast and could open up all kinds of avenues. (They call it MinION, which is adorable.) And we can now use 3D printing to create human tissue. It's only being used for drug testing right now, but hopefully in the near future we'll be able to substantially shorten organ transplant lists.

Continuing with biological news, there's an almost viable microbe that can turn seaweed into biofuel as well as a (natural!) plastic-eating fungus in the Amazon. Scientists can reconstruct sound from brainwaves, which I'll admit is a little scary. We've also germinated seeds from the last ice age, which says some very awesome things about the hardiness of plants.

And shifting to technology, we now have a computer program that paints, which is cool, but not quite as cool as flexible circuitry and a wearable electronics platform. Add those to Google's promised glasses and the following video, and we should be in the Future within the next couple years.

Of course, it's anyone's guess how and when all this stuff will be publicly available, rather than exorbitantly expensive and only owned by the rich. Or whether any of it's going to take off, even. Oh, for a time machine … Someone get on inventing that.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Great Superhero Read - Chronicle

I've been describing Chronicle to people as a found-footage superhero movie. It's "shot" by a teen boy's camcorder and has that wonderfully raw, unscripted documentary style to it. Not that it was unscripted, because it established characters and premise too efficiently for that to be true, but there was never a moment when I dropped out of the conceit and said, "Somebody wrote that line." The style complemented the story nicely and as a result, I think this may be one of the most realistic takes on superheroes I've seen yet.

Most of that realism is credited to the story and acting, of course, rather than the cinematography. Three seniors--a loner who owns the camera, his philosophy-obsessed cousin, and a politician-in-training--go into the woods outside Seattle and find a mysterious Something that gives them all telekinesis. Once they discover their powers, the teens start hanging out and training themselves, then pull a couple typically teenaged pranks on the general public. One of the pranks goes wrong, forcing the teens to give themselves rules like "no power use on living things". But the loner gets more and more upset at how unfair his life is and starts disobeying that rule, and then things get Bad. There are subplots surrounding the loner's family and the teen's social lives (sex and drinking), because hey, realism.

I got sucked into the characters' lives quickly, especially our loner protagonist's. There were genuinely moments when I cried and certainly moments when I was scared for them. If the theatre had been empty or I'd been at home, I may even have yelled at the screen. And what's even better is that I didn't really see the twists coming. I thought the film was going to be superhero story type A, then story type B, and then lkjijkadhdkh. On a rewatch I'd catch a lot more of the hints and stuff, I'm sure, but I was so involved in the story the first time round that I only had a minute or so warning, maybe.

This isn't entirely a black and white, good and evil sort of superhero story either, though there are definitely moments of that. It's hard for me, even a couple days later, to look at any given negative event in the film and say, "that was a bad thing, he's completely in the wrong there", because the characters are all so perfectly teenaged. Can I really say I'd have acted differently in that situation? Can I say that any of the characters is evil, since there are mitigating circumstances at every turn? I can't even look at the most heroic moment and think only good thoughts about it.

Which is not to say that this is a completely dark film. There's hope and humor too. I laughed as often as I cried. I also went into the theatre expecting a slightly shallow story that moved from A to B to C without much underpinning, and got a surprisingly deeper, nuanced story. So yes, one of the best superhero films I've seen, definitely the most realistic, and certainly one I'll recommend to people and keep thinking about.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Rules of Magic

It's pretty accepted wisdom these days that if you're going to write a book with magic in, you need to put constraints on what that magic can do or the story won't be interesting. Magic wielders can make problems disappear with a wave of their hand or a well-placed word. You'll get deus ex machinas cropping up on every page. The villain of the piece will be so powerful your heroes don't stand a chance. Readers will expect rules and get frustrated when they can't find any. The story will end on page 10. And so on.

The topic came up briefly in #scifichat on Twitter a couple weeks ago. I might even have raised it myself, I don't remember. I do remember having to clarify what I meant, though, and the act of clarifying go me thinking. For me, magic rules exist on a gradient like so much else in the world of the Writing Process. I also apparently define "constraints" pretty loosely. For me, it's not just about who can do magic or how magic happens or where magic's found. It's kind of a mix of all of that, and a little more. Bear in mind this is from a reader's perspective. I have no doubt that even the looser types of constraints are pretty rigorous from the writer's end.

The loosest constraints on magic are found in books where magic is in the background or where the reader doesn't need a detailed description of how magic works to understand the story. The castle flies, but we don't need to know why or how. The elves in the forest just kind of are. The heroine steps through a doorway and finds herself on another continent. People can cast spells in multiple ways and magic rarely if ever has negative consequences for the caster. Ambient natural magic, the sort that humans don't control, also fits here. It's hard to tell if the writer's created rules or is just working from what feels right, but there's no question the story works.

The next level up from that are magic systems that are nearly identical to the ones listed above, except there are a handful of things magic can't do, or can't do well, or people can't do magic until they're trained. Maybe magic doesn't allow time travel or maybe it doesn't work well on animals. Maybe you get magical training on your parents' knees, or maybe you go to school for it. Magic's still pretty much in the background and the story can almost but not quite be told without it.

Then we start seeing systems where magic can do just about anything, but only certain people can make it work. Maybe they've got fairy blood. Maybe they're wizards. Maybe it's anyone with blue eyes or red hair. I'd rank systems where magic can do anything but involves intricate spellwork or specific conditions at this level too, along with magic that does anything but is hard to control. And systems that involve magical backlash are probably here too—where casting a spell diminishes personal energy or causes pain, and magicians can do anything as long as they can handle the kickback. Making it harder for the characters to do magic makes it harder for them to achieve their goals and I think, though I'm not sure, that this is about where most of the action-oriented fantasies come in.

After the broad application levels, the potential of magic starts narrowing. Maybe different people do different sorts of magic, so the guy's who good with fire is going to suck at or be unable to read the future, and the guy who reads the future can't make a potion to save his life. Maybe magic can only apply to living things, or inorganics, or the elements. Maybe spells end after thirteen hours.

From there, magic systems narrow further by imposing more and more limitations, to the point where blue-eyed, red-headed daughters of seventh sons can only control earth magic under the full moon at midnight if they've had twenty years of training and eaten special herbs beforehand. I think when you get that complicated and make magic almost impossible to do that the fantasy becomes less fun, but maybe that's me. I'd be delighted to be proved wrong.

I think a similar series of gradients probably applies to science fiction. We've got hard science fiction, after all, and various "soft" sci-fis until we hit space operas like Star Wars which can sometimes be classed as fantasy. It's probably even possible to sync the two gradients up and create one that encompasses all of speculative fiction. I am, however, too lazy to do that, but maybe I've inspired you?

Oh, and if anyone has thoughts on this, positive, negative, or simply thoughts, let me know. I like discussions. :)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Great Superhero Read - Alphas

Alphas is the first superhero show in the last couple years that I've managed to get into. The Cape was … eh. No Ordinary Family had too many poor reviews and I didn't like what I saw in the trailers. But the concept of Alphas intrigued me, and the characters and writing kept me, and the new season cannot start fast enough.

Alphas is a blend of superhero and crime dramas. There's a team of people, each with an 'alpha' ability, who are assembled by a psychologist and work for the Department of Defense, tracking down other alphas who are (usually) a threat to society. The show's wonderfully morally grey—there are secret and terrible prisons, nobody really knows what the DoD's long term plan for alphas is, and not every alpha-of-the-week is actually a bad guy in the end. The main ensemble knows they're getting progressively more in over their heads and being asked to do things that they're not trained for, especially when it comes to the Big Bad, alpha terrorist group Red Flag.

Alphas is as much about the characters as the crime-of-the-week, though. Everyone's believably flawed and played straight and realistic, not for laughs or as archetypes. They screw up. They have emotional baggage. They get on each others' nerves for the smallest things, and sometimes they lose trust in each other, but at the end of day they're friends. Occasionally the "end of the day" is a couple episodes later, though. This is not a show that wraps up everyone's problems neatly at the end of the hour.

As for the superhero aspects of the show: everyone in the ensemble has powers except for Dr. Rosen, the psychologist and alpha expert. There's a bit of stereotyping going on with who gets what power—the black guy's really strong, the beautiful woman has mind control, the nerd can hack anything with his mind—and the "synethesia" one woman has is not actually synethesia. The powers don't feel over-the-top, just a little beyond what's normal, and there's yet to be a big hero-vs-villain sort of fight that doesn't involve a) teamwork or b) conventional weapons. We're also jumping into these people's lives after they've figured out what they can do, so we see acceptance, not angst. Family members know, characters use powers for everyday things like getting a can of coke out of a machine or avoiding a speeding ticket, and nobody, not even the alphas-of-the-week are defined by their powers.

As you can probably guess, the believability and understated everything is a large part what attracts me to the show. It's a cop show, not a soap opera like Heroes or an homage to comics like The Cape was looking to be, before I stopped watching. (I also like cop shows about as much as I like superheroes. That probably helps.) I'm also caught by the writing, which seems a cut above regular TV fare, and like that the writers aren't afraid to explore the morally grey thing. I've been looking forward to Season Two since it was announced, and no, that cliffhanger in the finale really didn't help.