Roleplaying. It’s kind of like sex. Sort of. Except it isn’t…

La bildo estas kopiita de wikipedia:es. La ori...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s no way anyone could get a good idea of what sex is like from reading a written description. I’m sure they could understand the mechanics of insert tab A into slot B, but I doubt they could understand the all consuming compulsion or the nuances of the experience.

I’ve never found a truly satisfying written description of roleplaying games either. The experience is very difficult to capture. It’s a bit like the childhood game “let’s pretend” with rules. Maybe it’s more like an interactive movie. But it’s not like a movie at all – because no-one knows beforehand what’s going to happen. It’s almost impossible to define.

Whatever it is – I like it.

The most satisfying way to play is in an extended campaign in which the story unfolds during many sessions over a long period. Everyone at the table contributes, but one more than the rest. Someone needs to have an idea of the general scheme of things. Preparing for such a campaign is almost all-consuming.

First you need to understand the game system you plan to use. They all have their own rules and milieu Then you need to think about the story. The best way to prepare is to immerse yourself into everything you can think of from the genre of the game you want to run; music, books, films etc.

I’ve run some really satisfying campaigns that lasted for a long time. I ran a fantasy game where all the gods were based on the periodic table (with heavy metals as the bad guys and precious metals as the good guys). Another involved the players as spirits in the afterlife investigating hauntings and releasing ghosts from the ties that bind so that they can move on.

We’ve played in World War II, the Wild West with Zombies, the nautical world of Patrick O’ Brien, the post apocalyptic world of Mad Max, the time travelling pulp world of caddish archeologists and many others.

Right now, I’m preparing a game of hard science fiction. The players will crew a starship around a far future cluster of systems, trying to make a few credits without getting blasted out of the cosmos. I’ve hungrily devoured as many science fiction novels as I can. My choice in films has driven my wife mad. I’ve filled my iPhone with Holst‘s Planets as well as a number of  favourite movie themes.

I do all this because the more you put in, the more enjoyable the campaign will be. The build up is like foreplay.

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Arthur C. Clarke

Book cover for The City and the Stars by Arthu...

Book cover for The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke. This was published by Harcourt in June 1956 and was the first release of this novel. The image is used to illustrate the article The City and the Stars. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Up until relatively recently, the only way I knew of Arthur C. Clarke was as the host of some interesting documentaries about cool stuff that no-one could explain.

He was a bald guy who lived in Sri Lanka who posed questions about crystal skulls and markings in ancient Peru that only made sense when viewed from altitude. I knew he wrote 2001, A Space Odyssey and the follow-up 2010, but it never occurred to me just how prolific he was as a science fiction author.

It was only when I came across his books in the science fiction masterworks series that I realised just how many books he penned. Unlike many great science fiction authors, Arthur C. Clarke has the distinction of having two books released under the banner; Rendezvous With Rama and The City and the Stars. From reading the back covers, Rendezvous sounded more interesting, so that’s the one I read first.

Arthur C. Clarke has a great way of describing technical and physical things in a way that they make sense to the reader. He can bring them to life in the space of a few short sentences. In Rendezvous with Rama, the story revolves around a gigantic spaceship that visits our future Solar System so he has plenty of opportunity to exercise his craft.

Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book, I couldn’t help feeling cheated when I reached the end. If I were unkind, I might summarise the plot as: a huge alien spaceship turns up; humans explore it; it buggers off taking all its secrets with it. At the end of the book, he explained little or nothing about the culture that built the spacecraft. Were they alive or dead? Were they benevolent or malicious? All we know is that they build cool spaceships populated with robots.

In all my disappointment about the first book, I felt reluctant to read the second. It was only when a friend recommended The City and the Stars that I picked up the book. I have to say – what a difference. If not much happens in the first book, the whole universe changes in the second book.

The action starts off in the sterile city of Diaspar. Everything is safe within the city’s dome. People are reproduced as necessary from within  the central computer’s memory banks and have to live according to preset conditioning. The central character, Alvin, is born with something no-one else seems to have; curiosity. He wants to know what’s out there and boy does he find out and changes the city, the world and the universe in the process. It’s a great novel and I was staggered to find out that he wrote it in the 50s. I was doubly staggered to find out that it was a rewrite of the first story he ever penned.

It’s hard to believe that Arthur C. Clarke wrote both books. The second is a masterpiece. The only criticism I have is that I don’t find his descriptions of people to be particularly evocative. But who am I to judge?

Asimov

Cover of "The Complete Robot (Robot Serie...

Cover of The Complete Robot (Robot Series)

I don’t know why I never got round to reading it. I picked it up in a charity shop eons ago. The cover showed its age and the title didn’t seem that exciting. Even the blurb on the back of the book failed to motivate any kind of desire to read it. How wrong I was.

I tend to find books where politics form the central thread of the story tedious. There are some notable exceptions; The Song of Ice and Fire trilogy by George Martin the main one that springs to mind. I also have low tolerance for books that don’t grab me early in the story. So I didn’t have high expectations. Despite all that, Foundation is the best science fiction novel I’ve ever read.

The central premise of the story is interesting. The behaviour of any sufficiently large society can be mapped and predicted using mathematical models. Professor Hari Sheldon, as a Psychohistorian predicts the downfall of the empire using such mathematical models. There is no way to avoid it, but the effects are mitigated by forming the Foundation.

The story rattles along at a cracking pace as the epochs unfold. Each epoch requires a different set of skills and a different set of people to come to the fore. The scale of the story is sometimes staggering, but as a writer, I can appreciate the crispness of Isaac Asimov‘s prose. The end of every era is marked by a crisis as the new epoch is born. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was genuinely disappointed when the book finished. 

I went to the local bookshop to pick up the sequels, only to find that they were out of stock. Impatient to get another dose of Asimov, I picked up the Complete Robot anthology. All of the 31 stories revolve around the robots of the US Robotics and Mechanical Men corporation and the nuances of the 3 laws of robotics. Some might think that such a subject would be severely limiting, but there is huge variety in the stories. My personal favourite is Reason where the robots decide that the best way to obey first law is to start locking the humans up.

By a sheer stroke of coincidence the day after I finished the series I, Robot came on the TV. I have yet to read the story, but I couldn’t turn down the chance of some visual Asimov goodness. The character names and the terminology used are reminiscent of the world I’ve come to know and love, but it’s almost as if they put together all the ingredients of a good Asimov robot story and threw half of them away. Not a bad film, but somehow a wasted opportunity.

I can’t wait for someone to create a film version of Foundation. In the meantime, I’m patiently waiting for the next books in the series.

Don’t get too comfortable…

An artist's depiction of an extrasolar, Earthl...

An artist’s depiction of an extrasolar, Earthlike planet.. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

All in all, planet Earth is not a bad place, but one day, no matter how much we like it, we might have to up sticks and leave. Maybe we’ll have polluted the place so much that it’s no longer viable to live here. Perhaps the water level will rise so far that there’s no dry land. Or NASA could detect a large foreign body hurtling towards Earth at an alarming rate and Bruce Willis is not returning their calls. Let’s hope it doesn’t involve mushroom clouds.

Read any science fiction novels or watch any films and it’s almost a given that sooner or later, the human race will colonise other worlds. As worlds go, planet Earth is just about perfect. Unfortunately, it’s in the minority. If we want to be choosy about where to migrate to, we need to travel a very long way before we get there.

Unless someone comes up with technology that can move us many orders of magnitude faster than we can today, the only way to get to our new home will be to launch a ship on which people are born, grow old and die many times before the ship reaches the destination. That’s assuming they make it. Space is a hostile environment and there’s no shortage of cosmic debris moving at frightening speeds. A rogue meteor could be the difference between a nice day’s space flight and hard vacuüm.

Not only that, but they will need to pack for every eventuality. Unlike my wife, I can pack for a couple of weeks away  with a case no bigger than a shoebox. If I forget something, it’s easy enough to go and buy whatever I need. When you’ve been in space for 30 years, nipping back home for a new toothbrush or spare parts is impractical.

The crew need to be entertained too. For a long space voyage, half a dozen DVDs are not going to cut it. What are they going to eat? I can imagine that ration packs washed down with recycled urine gets real old real quick. With people cooped up in close proximity for so long, discipline will become an issue. Someone needs to keep the peace.

Depending on the target planet, the journey might be the easy bit. What if we land on LV426?

I do hope that someone, somewhere is quietly working on all these challenges. The time to start trying to solve them is not 72 hours before the asteroid hits.

You never know what you might find…

Cover of "Indiana Jones and the Raiders o...

Cover via Amazon

There can’t be too many people in the world who haven’t seen the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s a lot to like about it. It’s one of my favourite films of all time. One of the best scenes, if not a little depressing, is the scene at the end where the US government locks away the precious Ark of the Covenant in a warehouse along with many other treasures and antiquities.

It’s depressing because I can imagine some misguided government doing that just to keep the status quo. I mean the last thing that any government wants is radical change and the moral and ethical questions around a hotline to the supreme being are enough to make any politician’s toes curl. The warehouse reminds me of something else, however, my favourite book store.

When I go into a high street book store, I tend to follow exactly the same pattern every time. I’ll go and have a look at the Science Fiction section and then I naturally progress to the Fantasy section as it’s usually right next door. I always take a gander at the graphic novels, just in case there’s anything there that tickles my fancy. Because of my profession, I have a little look at the computer section and the books that tell you how to be a good manager.

Because of my routine, I am seldom surprised, and it’s rare that I buy anything. I’ve read pretty much everything I want to read in those sections and the pace at which new books are published means that I have many fruitless visits to the book store.

My favourite bookstore, however, is totally different. It is just like the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse – a massive building containing many fine treasures. Why do I like it so much? Anyone with OCD who entered the building would have a nightmare as if there is any kind of organisation of the books inside, I certainly don’t know the rules of what goes where.

But it is precisely this disorganised nature of storing books that I like, because I can’t just go to the sections I like. I’m forced to browse through books I wouldn’t even dream of looking at normally. Of course, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a princess, but I nearly always come away with some books to read, unlike when I visit the high street book stores. Not only that, but the books are heavily discounted too.

The name of this house of treasures is “Books 66” and if you have one nearby, it’s well worth a visit.

Shields up!

NCC-1701-B

NCC-1701-B (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In almost every Star Trek episode or film, you can count on a number of things. Someone will say “beam me up”, the crew will face some kind of moral dilemma and someone in a red shirt gets it. The other thing that happens regularly is that the Starship Enterprise will get involved in some kind of tussle. The Captain issues the command “Shields up!” and we will see the pretty little display panel showing the nice safe force fields around the ship.

Once that happens, you know that although the crew might get tossed around a bit, some minor pyrotechnics will go off under a control panel and one of the officers will give dire warnings that the shields are failing. But hey – there’s another half an hour to run, so nothing too bad is going to happen. The shields are a good thing. They keep all that horrible nastiness away from the ship and the Star Trek universe seems to have more than its fair share of horrible nastiness.

As a technologist, I have to deal with shields of a different kind. In my career, the “tussles” I get involved with are much more mundane and still there are many who feel the need to resort to a force field. The command words in this case are “I’m not technical”. Don’t even bother trying to explain any of that technology nonsense to me, because I’m not technical. They wear those words like a suit of armour.

The problem is, that the very same person wearing those shields typically want to know why it’s going to take so long to get that new bit of functionality or to get their problem fixed. Whenever faced with this situation, unwise words gallop to the front of my brain. “Sorry – it takes us a long time to find the spell components to cast the spell to fix that particular problem” or “Sorry – but the fix-it fairies only work on Fridays”. Thankfully, I’ve always managed to catch them before they escape.

Once during a presentation, a guy in the front row put up his hand and asked me to clarify something I had just illustrated. After a short exchange to understand where the guy was coming from, I tried rephrasing my point in simpler language. He still didn’t get it, so I tried to make it simpler and gave an analogy. Still no luck, so I kept on simplifying until I just ran out of levels and then conscious of wasting the rest of the audience’s time, I told him it was magic, an answer which he accepted with good grace.

OK, so the gap between that guy’s knowledge and the subject matter of the presentation was too great to be bridged in the limited time we had available, but at least the guy was game. He wanted to understand and for that, he gets a lot of points in my book. So if you are one of the people equipped with the “I’m not technical” shields, just hold off hitting the button – take a chance. You might be amazed how technical you really are.

The inconvenient science of science fiction

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside,...

English: A picture of the plaque at Riverside, Iowa, reading “Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk March 22, 2228”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

150 years ago, Jules Verne wrote about a trip to the moon. 5 years later, he wrote about a powered submarine. Arthur C Clark wrote about GPS long before it ever became a reality. Captain Kirk used communicators to get Scotty to beam him up. Spot the odd one out.

Well, we’ve been to the moon and we have countless submarines creeping around the world packed with missiles waiting to unleash Armageddon. Most people have GPS in their smartphones which they also use as portable wireless communication devices. All of these things that were dreamed up in the realm of science fiction have since become true. Unfortunately, transporter beams have yet to be invented. We’re not even close.

In some Star Trek episodes, they talk about how transporters work. They transfer the subject’s substance or matter into energy, send it to another place and then turn the energy back into matter arranged according to the pattern. When something goes wrong, they “pull back” the subject to their starting point, only sometimes, they don’t make it. It all sounds terrifying and I certainly wouldn’t be keen on trying out early prototypes.

But how likely are they to happen?  I once asked a hulking great Jamaican barman on a cruise ship whether the crew ate the same food as the passengers. With a deep-throated roar of laughter, he told me “same meat, same fish, same vegetables – different chef, different recipe”. In other words, just transferring matter is not enough, the pattern in which that matter is arranged is crucial.

We have a pattern for the human body. Twelve years ago the first draft of the human genome was published. Our DNA is incredibly complicated with 25,000 genes and 3 billion chemical base pairs arranged in a double helix. In a recent update, scientists announced that what they previously thought was junk DNA is actually crucial to the make up of the human body.

A tiny unwanted accidental change in the pattern could be enough to render the subject blind, deaf or worse. It would seem to be a pre-requisite that this work is completely finished before transporter technology could be feasible for transmitting humans. But what about simpler matter? Using something I don’t claim to understand called quantum entanglement, scientists in Copenhagen have transported  matter 18 inches. Physicists in the Canary Islands have used the same trick to transmit small payloads over 89 miles.

Scientists admit that the same trick won’t work for humans, so something fundamentally different will need to be discovered to make transporters viable. Looks like we will be stuck with planes, trains and automobiles for a while yet.