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Science Fiction Roundup: Hunger Games for Robots, Cloning Mammoths, AR Glasses, and a Parrot

Hello everyone! I know last week I promised an analysis of the writing mistakes in the ending of Mass Effect 3, but seeing as I haven’t quite finished it yet (Spring Break wasn’t quite long enough), I thought I should probably save that for next week. So, instead, here’s a roundup of a bunch of sci-fi-related articles that are both great story material, and stuff I thought was pretty cool.

The Hunger Games Arena, Now With Robots

With the new Hunger Games movie coming out this Friday, it’s not surprising that this article coming from LiveScience made the comparison of the US Navy’s recently opened Laboratory of Autonomous Research and the sadistic death arena of Suzanne Collins’ bestseller. The facility, a multi-environment testing center complete with wave beach, forty-one foot deep ‘ocean’ tank, jungle, and desert areas, is designed as a testing center for robots and soldiers alike (although the story claims these are strictly not pitted against each other in a battle to the death). Check out the link for more details, and some less-than-thrilling pictures. Honestly, couldn’t they have at least painted the walls or something?

Navy Opens ‘Hunger Games’ Arena for Military Robots (LiveScience)

Cloning Baby Mammoths ‘Jurrassic Park’ Style

mummified baby mammoth

Picture courtesy of Singularity Hub

Ok, so the mammoth-mummy is kind of creepy, but cloning an ancient breed of enormous prehistoric elephants couldn’t possibly be a bad idea, now could it? Some Korean scientists don’t think so! It’s actually a joint venture with a bunch of different groups, all attempting to figure out a way to fertilize the egg of a modern-day elephant with the DNA of the extinct variety (to what purpose I have no idea, except SCIENCE!). Check out the link below for more details!

Korean and Russian Scientists Trying to Resurrect Mammoths (Singularity Hub)

Augmented Reality Glasses Are A Thing Now

Augmented reality, the superimposing of computer-generated images and information on the environment, is one of my favorite technologies, much more so since Google’s recent project came to light. Well, it seems a few other companies aren’t willing to let Google take the consumer AR market for themselves, as Microsoft has recently filed a patent for their own prototype, a device that actually fires low-powered visible lasers into the retina of each eye to form the images. It might sound scary and dangerous, but it’s actually a very clever way of getting around the focusing issue of having a screen so close to the eye, since the image will now be in the eye. Also, it seems a year ago Sony had a prototype 3D tv headset at the CES, which they are developing for movie and videogame entertainment. Not actually AR, but I just know someone’s going to stick a Kinect on that thing and turn it into a proper setup. Check out the links below!

Google’s AR Glasses Expected by Year’s End (PC World)

Microsoft Patents Laser-Based Display Technology (Ars Technica)

Sony’s Head-Mounted 3D Display (from last year, Ars Technica)

The Parrot AR Drone 2: Twice the Fun and None of the Molting

I’ve talked about how drones are likely to become very common in both military and civilian life, but before now there haven’t been any practical and affordable civilian drones available. The original Parrot drone, in fact, was too expensive and far too fragile to be reasonable, but since the quadricopter’s recent reboot, I’m betting there will be a new market surge of competition. The Parrot AR Drone 2 uses four propellers and a specialized balancing setup for stability, making it easy for even novice pilots to control with their iPhone or iPad (sadly, no Android devices), and a built-in camera that sends a live feed through a 3G internet connection to the controlling device. Check out the link below for more information!

The Parrot AR Drone 2 in Action (Singularity Hub)

That’s all for now! Next week I’ll have my analysis of Mass Effect 3’s writing issues. Until then, how well do you think the AR glasses popping up will actually do once they’re on the market? Are we looking at another 3D tv non-craze in the making? Let me know in the comments below!

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Cloning: More Than Just a Way to Duplicate Sheep

Cloning is very prevalent in our media today, not only in fiction, but in the news. Scientists are getting closer and closer to the techniques that were once considered Mad Science (and by some still is), and it seems every day we are getting closer to the sort of feats described in Brave New World and many other classics, who see it simultaneously as a wonder and a horror of the future.

Well, while I think using clones as a plot device is sort of cheating in most cases (Ha! You didn’t kill me, that was my CLONE!), there are a few other uses that may be a good way of adding to your science fiction world without making it into a grotesque centerpiece to your plot. I might expand this into a more thorough examination of the theme as it occurs in science fiction (Science Fiction Problems!) , but for now, here are some ways you can safely add cloning to your story without breaking it.

Drug-sniffing Dogs and Various Other Animal Conveniences

Here’s a fun and cute application of Mad Science for you- puppies! Well, actually, the intent in this experiment was not to replicate adorable pets, but to recreate the expert sniffer of a particularly adept K9 named Chase. Byeong-Chun Lee of Seoul National University performed a procedure called “Artificial Asexual Propagation” on an egg which was implanted with Chase’s DNA, creating a large number of cloned cells that were then meticulously handled until 4 finally survived, were born via surrogate mother, grew up, and were darn good sniffers. This was all to prove that desirable traits in an animal can replicated in clones, and according to his research, it seems to be true.

cloned beef hotdogs comic

I almost wish they would label them cloned, just because I would be curious as to whether or not I could taste the difference...

Apocalyptic notions of clone armies and tyrannical eugenics aside, this technique could be very useful in propagating better animal traits, augmenting current breeding techniques. If there’s a particularly good specimen of beef cow, for instance, you could clone it and breed the clones to more easily spread the good genes, helping with the gene pool problems currently in the industry. We actually already eat cloned beef and other meats as a part of the normal stock (The FDA approved the unlabeled sale of cloned beef in 2006), so there’s already some useful applications today.

This sort of cloning practice could be used to replicate endangered species, resurrect some extinct ones, and replicate desirable traits in pets, where if mixed with some good ‘ol genetic engineering, could become a major market for a futuristic society. Maybe citizens living in such a world could go down to the store and pick up the same model of schnauzer as their neighbor, or pick up a dog cloned for his impeccable guarding instincts.

Additionally, as seen in the movie The Sixth Day (2000, which admittedly got a rotten rating of 40% on in spite of its very interesting premise), pets could be cloned after death given that the right samples were preserved, enabling mourning owners to buy a brand new copy of Fido, good as new.

the 6th day movie poster

Pretty typical Schwarzenegger movie, but I liked the tech ideas...

As long as it stays out of the realm of human cloning (perhaps it’s still too controversial or the technology just isn’t there yet), you won’t have to deal with the plot problems associated with it. Be warned, however- the further you go, the more important it becomes. If you decide to make cloning a large part of your story world, it will be hard to explain why human cloning doesn’t exist at least as a black market.

So, to conclude- as long as you don’t overdo it and can come up with a convincing reason why they don’t do it to humans, you can add cloning to your story without it overwhelming your plot.

Until next week, does anyone else get tired of supposedly dead villains (or heroes) popping out of no where with the shocking revelation that it was a clone all along? Anyone seen a good use of clones that wasn’t the center of the plot?

Overgeneralizing in Fantasy: Finding a Clumsy Elf

I just had the dubious pleasure of reading through a student’s basic English essay (at the college level, it saddens me to say) that was so incredibly bad it was hysterically funny.  This zealously ignorant student had the task of writing a comparison/contrast essay and write one, he did.

Now, I’ve seen a lot of very special essays on comparing and contrasting two objects: the essays comparing cats to dogs (did you know that dogs wag their tails when they’re happy, but cats only do it when they’re mad?  *le gasp!*), the essays comparing high school to college (in college you actually have to do the homework *le wheezy gasp of horror!!!*), and the essays comparing soccer and football (they both use balls, but football is just better and cooller and sweeter and totally wicked and awesome and why do people even watch soccer, I mean, come on… *le tragic sigh*)

This essay, though, was on a whole new level of horrific.  My job is not to grade, but to tutor, so I usually just read the essays, make a few specific comments, and explain to the poor darlings how to use commas, words, sentences… brains… You know, basic stuff.  This student’s teacher had given him a list of possible topics and he’d chosen this one: compare athletes to couch potatoes.

Okay, that could be fun, right?  Only, here’s the problem: English 101 students rarely know how to differentiate between general facts and overgeneralizations.  They don’t qualify.  They just claim.  And this student claimed the following:

  • Athletes are clean, beautiful, smart people who are motivated in everything they do.
    Couch potatoes are dirty, nasty, mean people who hate everyone.
  • Athletes are primarily motivated by their desire to make the world a better place.
    Couch potatoes want to destroy the planet.
  • Being an athlete is the highest calling in life.
    Couch potatoes are an epidemic worse than AIDS that mostly affects teenagers and old people.
  • Oh, and by the way, if everyone was an athlete and we got rid of the couch potatoes, there would probably be no AIDs or global warming!

I did my best to explain to this student that you cannot make claims like this without support (God help him in finding any) and that you cannot stereotype athletes and couch potatoes quite so strongly.  I can only pray that he took my advice into account when he revised his paper.

It was a traumatizing experience, reading that paper, but I decided to make it a constructive one if I could.  I considered the issue of stereotyping and profiling groups of people and it made me think about novels, particularly fantasy novels.

This is an issue that I think authors actually need to be very careful of.  Stereotyping entire fantasy races happens far more often than it should.  Think about the last novel you read that had elves in it.  Were they all tall, graceful, noble, perhaps mysterious, very good with bows, prone to frolicking?  Whatever the author chose to do, he or she very likely made all of the elves the same:

  • They are famous for their _________.
  • They are always __________.
  • They never __________.

Fill in the blanks and you have a stereotyped people-group.

Unless your race is actually cloning itself, there should be some major differences within the people-group.

Now, there are obviously reasonable explanations for some supposed stereotypes.  Making an entire race vegetarian is reasonable enough.  Maybe they’re not made for meat eating or they had a bad experience with those pesky cannibals down south that put them off it entirely.  Making an entire race peaceful, on the other hand, is much riskier.  Every single one of the ten thousand members of that race is peace-loving, soft spoken, and willing to die rather than defend themselves?  Really?

Of course, those same fantasy novels rarely do these things with the human race.  Humans are varied, some good and some evil, some talented in war, some in healing, some in magic, some in learning.  Humans are always varied because everyone knows that they really are, right?

So why do other races so often get a blanket description?  Obviously, this doesn’t happen all the time.  Let me not be guilty of stereotyping fantasy novels.  But it does happen and it can be quite irritating.

So to avoid being like the unfortunate student whose whole world revolves around shining, godlike athletes and slovenly, trolls known as couch potatoes, take a long look at that short story/novel you are writing that has different races.  Are you guilty of overgeneralizing and making those races unnaturally uniform?

I challenge you to give some variety within those races.  Consider adding a clumsy elf or two.