Monthly Archives: December 2010

The bright future of 2011

The end of the year has come.  It is the time of reflections and resolutions. Everyone tends to look toward brighter and better things, hopeful thoughts, and healthier futures. People look back over the year and either complain about past mistakes or about all the things they wished they had done.

I have never been good at the resolution thing.  It is not that I don’t like the idea of resolutions.  I just hate the idea of failing at them. So to save myself from the inevitable failure, I have generally avoided resolutions.  But I do like the concept of reflection; it is good to reconsider past deeds, behavior, and dreams to see if they were profitable, successful, and worth pursuing.

This summer Lantern Hollow Press was just a hair-brained idea that caught fire.  Soon nine friends had a publishing company.  In 2011 LHP is going to be publishing its first issues of its e-zine and editions of books.  This is more than just resolutions; this is the bright future.

So come on 2011, I am ready to write, read and publish!


Railguns: A practical example of science fiction technology

In this article:

The Tauri Battlecruiser Daedalus engaging two Wraith hive ships with its railguns.

  • The railgun, so long a secondary weapon in various science fiction universes, is now a reality.
  • They are a completely different type of weapon and promise to exceed any cannon now in existence.
  • They can be easily incorporated into science fiction stories, and are adaptable to far more than weapons.

Erik has set up this week’s promised post beautifully in his appeal for examples of real, practical science fiction technology. We’ve had one demonstrated for us within the last month: the railgun. I believe that railguns, rather than nukes, will most likely be what humanity carries into space for defense.

Science fiction has made some notable use of the idea of railguns already, but they haven’t really caught on in the “stars”science fiction, meaning the universes with the biggest exposure and cultural impact.* I personally know of no reference to them in Star Wars or Star Trek, though Stargate began to incorporate them with Atlantis. They have been used extensively in sci-fi video games, including the Metal Gear, Red Faction, and Quake series. They have also been featured in Warhammer 40,000 and anime like Gundam and Macross. I have no doubt they are about to get much more popular for a simple reason: They’ve become reality.

An explanation of the science behind railguns from "How Stuff Works."

Railguns are surprisingly simple machines that are also revolutionary in a number of ways. Instead of propelling its ammunition by explosive force, railguns use electromagnetic energy. The devices use parallel rails that form a sort of barrel. A massive burst of electricity is transformed into an huge electromagnetic surge that pushes the projectile to incredible speeds. It is the first time in hundreds of years that humanity has developed a weapon that hasn’t relied on expanding gasses for its locomotion.

Railguns were first conceived back in the 1970s and were pushed forward as a result of President Ronald Reagan and his Strategic Defense Initiative. Over the past few years, the U.S. Navy has been testing a version it plans to use to replace the guns on its surface fleet. They’ve made rapid progress, going from concept to working model in a matter of only a year or two. Over the last few years they operated an experimental eight megajoule weapon, and last month they successfully tested one rated to thirty-three. The final product should be able to produce an incredible sixty-four megajoules.

To put this into perspective, a single megajoule (the unit of measure used to gauge the destructive power of naval weapons) is roughly equivalent to a one ton car impacting a target at roughly 100 miles per hour. When we multiply that by thirty-three or sixty-four, the results are spectacular.

Modern naval guns produce approximately nine megajoules of muzzle energy with each shot. The “baby” railgun produced nearly that amount of energy, and the thirty-three megajoule version tested last month more than triples it. A five inch naval gun has a range of about fifteen nautical miles. The finished railguns should have an effective range of over 250. Muzzle velocity in older weapons is measured in feet per second. (2,690 fps or approximately 1894 mph for a 16-inch heavy turret on an Iowa class battleship). The new railgun should clock in at Mach 7 when fired at sea level (5390 mph or 7905 fps) They will literally be able to launch projectiles into space (allowing them to hit targets all over the globe). The sheer force of impact is so powerful that explosive warheads are not even necessary, though designers are planning on adding guidance fins. Some pundits are arguing that there is no armor heavy enough to absorb an impact from a railgun, so it makes more sense to remove a ship’s armor, allowing projectiles to just pass through while doing the least damage possible. The naval railguns even have a significantly increased rate of fire over their explosive predecessors (though nothing like what we see Stargate: Atlantis…at least not yet).

A still from an actual test-firing of the Navy's railgun featured on

The potential for a weapon like this in science fiction is nearly endless. Battles between ships over massive distances are completely practical. They might take on a flavor similar to the naval fights of World War II, though in three dimensions. Ships would line up in complex formations designed to maximize “fire”power, raining shells onto their enemies that would shatter structures to pieces and tear gaping holes in steel armor. Explosive weapons could be designed to bury themselves into a ship’s interior before detonation (using an enemy’s own atmosphere against them) and other projectiles might be built with radiological cores designed to disintegrate as they passed through a ship, poisoning the interior. There would always be the danger of over spray, putting planets and installations elsewhere in the system at risk. Interplanetary bombardment would be quite realistic using large, ground based cannons. Planetary defenses against invading fleets could be set up the same way. Further, they could be scaled up or down depending on the need.

But why stop with weapons? The same technology could be adapted to transportation and supply. Bases on other planets could be supplied by pods flung into space by railguns. Railguns could be used in asteroid mining, smashing planetoids into pieces allowing smaller craft to pick through the rubble for useful minerals. They could even be used for travel between systems a la Mass Effect.

I would encourage you to think through many of the smaller details of design that I do not have time to discuss here (i.e. the need for heat shielding on projectiles fired within an atmosphere to prevent them from disintegrating). If you have any thoughts or good examples, please share them in the comments.

*There is an apparent case to be made for including the word “star” in the title of your worlds if you want to make millions of dollars. I need a new title for my first book, since our upcoming e-zine nabbed the one I originally intended to use. Hmmm….


Science Fiction Problems: Technological Plausibility

Battle Mech With Assault Rifle

Some day... *sigh*

Hello again and welcome to another Science Fiction Problems here at While We’re Paused!

Science Fiction commonly speculates on future technology, with varying success as some writers take a few more liberties with the laws of physics and reality than others (I’m looking at you, Star Trek). Many of the cool things presented simply do not jive with reality, and in some cases, can be easily proven to be impossible. While some readers (or viewers, or players in the case of video games of the genre) may not recognize the problem, if there is not a reasonable explanation for unfamiliar technology, even the least critical among your audience will feel like you don’t know what you’re talking about. I know I keep coming back to this point, as I discussed it in The Rules of the World and Why You Need Them, but in the case of speculative technology, you cannot afford to have your audience think your ideas couldn’t possibly work. The easiest way to address this difficulty is to base your future technology on currently emerging ones. Here are a few examples of some of my favorites:


Ripley's Power Loader Aliens Movie

The Power Loader from the movie...

Here’s a staple of Science Fiction wherever you find it. From its origin in E. E.

Power Loader exoskeleton

...and a power loader piloted by a silly asian man.

Smith’s Lensmen series to Ripley’s power loader of the Aliens series, these strength-augmenting suits have been in movies and novels since Science Fiction first began. Interestingly enough, the ideas eventually lead to the development of real-life exoskeletons which are being built for military applications, and potentially for more dexterous industrial machinery. This is far from fantastical in its most basic form, but it can be almost magical and unrealistic, and at that point we get something more along the lines of Gundum Wing than actual, scientific technology. This is not to say you can’t have giant battle suits duking it out in your story, but for heaven’s sake, at least briefly explain how they are able to power the things, and why those suits are more practical than any number of tracked or wheeled vehicles that the military already employs.

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality Contact Lens Screens Raygun Studio

I want these soooo badly. Photo by Raygun Studio

This concept in technology has become far more familiar since the advent of the home video game console, such as the Nintendo Wii system, and more recently, Microsoft’s Kinect peripheral. In general, augmented reality is the projection of computer generated images onto real-world images in real time. This is one of my favorite technologies, and one particular project I am keeping a close eye on is the LED screen contact lens. Once these are perfected, the wearer could have the kind of computer-vision you see in the Terminator movies, where the computer adds relevant information and visual aids to their environment. The applications for this technology are vast, and as a science fiction idea, they add a lot of background feel to the story while not straying too far from the believable.

BrainGate brain-computer interface

A fairly primitive bionic interface, but a start at least.

Brain-Computer Interface

While the previous technology is not so easily abused to groan-worthy levels, this one has already seen almost limitless potential for half-baked application. Since not many of us are telepathic, the ability to project commands to a computer with mere thought is something of an ordeal to actually demonstrate, but at this time it is technically feasible. Currently, the most impressive success in this field is the demonstration of one individual’s ability to control a computer cursor with his mind, but this involved the surgical implantation of sensors into the user’s brain. To say, control the actions of an entire spacecraft with one’s mind is a little out of reach at the moment (if you happen to have the spacecraft in any case), but the proof of concept is there. With these implants, it would likely also be possible to give the brain sensory information from the computer, giving the user the illusion of physical interactions and tactile response.

These are only a few examples of Science Fiction ideas that are based on real life technology, and in many cases, the science fiction was the inspiration for the technology itself. By basing your own speculative technologies on current ideas, you can project a potential for what may become of our newest ideas, and create realistic worlds that can easily draw in and immerse your audience.

So, what are some technologies you have seen in books or movies that you’ve seen become reality?

Touring Fantasyland, Part 3: Oh, I Just Can’t Wait to Be…

This week’s tour of Diana Wynne Jones’ Tough Guide to Fantasyland will take us through the following issues:

  • Is your prince a scallawag or a noble hero?
  • Is your princess a fainting flower or a bold and rebellious heroine?
  • Have you somehow managed to escape either of these overused clichés?

Young royalty in Fantasyland are a breed all their own.  They cannot simply exist.  They must play some sort of role.  They will define the story in some important way that you, oh reader, cannot deny.

And writers?  You know it’s true.  You have a royal heir wandering around your story somewhere as well.  Possibly more than one.

The question is, how cliché is your royal personage?  Does he or she fit into the mold of traditional Fantasyland royalty or have you taken that mold and shaped it to your will?

We will look first at princes.

Princes are of three kinds:

1. Acknowledged heirs to thrones.  These Princes are bad lots, fat, greedy, wilful, and cruel at best… In some way, these will have managed to disguise their natures in front of their royal faters the kings, who will think the world of them… There is no nasty sort of cruelty and slyness these royal heirs will not stoop to.  They recognize those of better natures at once and attack them with everything they have.

If your prince is in line for the throne with no sign of being disinherited, he is probably a nasty sort of fellow.  A prince who has it easy and who isn’t about to be accused unlawfully of treason cannot possibly be the good sort of prince, now, can he?  So, how will a good prince fare?

2. Princes who have been thrown out by their royal father.  These will have been framed by a chancellor or younger prince (who will be fat, see above) and disinherited for crimes they did not commit

3. Lost heirs, who have been stolen or removed for safety at their births.  These will not have a notion of who they really are, but will find out in the course of the tour.

It would be much too easy for our royal hero to simply gain the throne and rule with goodness and bring his country into a state of great prosperity and happiness.  And besides, how is he to meet his feisty, beautiful (possibly also royal-on-the-run) heroine and love-of-his-life if he’s cooped up safe in a castle?

This brings us to the princesses.  They are much more straightforward:

Princesses come in two main kinds:

1. Wimps

2. Spirited and wilful… Spirited Princesses often disguise themselves as boys and invariably marry commoners of sterling worth.  With surprising frequency these commoners turn out to be long-lost heirs to kingdoms.

Not a princess but, eh, you get the idea. Mulan was sensible, though. Mostly.

Now, one traditional use of princesses which I have touched on briefly in an earlier post on dragons is to stick them in a tower to await some hero.  These are the Wimps of the princess world.  However, the inclination (brought on by those pesky feminists, you know) today is to give princesses a rebellious nature that is so much more endearing…ish.  The problem is, these princesses often seem to lose all common sense along with their sense of decorum as they traipse across the countryside declaring their independence.  Is it too much to ask for a sensible heroine?

My favorite princess from any story would have to be Cimorene from Dealing With Dragons, also mentioned in an earlier post about dragons (yes, I have a certain preference).  She is not so much rebellious as sensible, single-minded, and intelligent enough to know what she wants and how to go about getting it.

So, our questions for this week:

  • What is the best way to use a royal in a story?
  • How have you used a prince or princess in your story in a way that you feel circumvents these more cliché plotlines?
  • Do you feel that these traditional roles of prince and princess actually possess some virtue?



Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.” 

            Spring came at last and brought with it my third sonnet—not yet a very good one, but less awkward, and showing an increasing level of comfort with the Shakespearean form, despite still a good bit of cheating.  But the quatrains function as paragraphs and the couplet is starting to have a little of the punch that the Shakespearian couplet is designed to have, aided by the ironic reversal of the normal relationship of life and death in the last line.  Experience right now teaches us that with death all life must end, but the historical Resurrection of Christ, boosted by the repeated pattern of Spring, allows a better hope (and a more interesting ending) for people of biblical faith.


Today the snow begins to melt away

And slush and dirt will come to take its place,

Leaving mud where Sun was wont to play

At making bright the whiteness of earth’s face.

The path which booted feet must go to tread

Will fill with mire whose suction holds them back

Until the walking fills his soul with dread

Whose pathway takes him o’er the ruined track.

Though bright and cold like swords Snow strikes our eyes

And, lifting spirit, fills the heart with song,

On leaving makes a world that we despise,

Whose dirty, drab-dead sickness lasteth long.

 But this must be e’er leaves of Spring begin:

It is the Law:  with life all death must end.

Donald T. Williams, PhD