Thursday, December 31, 2009

Russia Vs Apophis

It sounds like an episode of Stargate:SG-1 featuring their long-running Gua'uld villain, but this actually refers to a possible mission bye the Russian Space Agency to deflect asteroid 99942 Apophis, which is scheduled to make two very close approaches to Earth in the next few decades. For the full story, check out THIS article from the New York Times.

The mission is by no means firm, international objections are already being raised, and even if it does go ahead the exact method to be used for the deflection hasn't been elaborated on. But I hope the mission does go ahead.

First of all, I do think it would be a good thing to deflect the asteroid away if possible. Even though scientists are pretty sure its trajectory will carry it through a couple of near misses, something unforeseen could teeter in toward a collision course. I don't consider that very likely, but its not impossible, so perhaps its best not to take a chance.

But more important, it will test a capability that will prove very valuable to long-term future space efforts. Not just in terms of safety, in deflecting possible future impactors, but in terms of how to exploit one of the most abundant and important resources in interplanetary space. Not any time in the near future, mind you, but toward the end of this century or perhaps early in the next one can envision asteroids being slowly herded about the inner solar system, to be used as mineral resources for burgeoning construction projects and as natural frameworks for well-armored space-borne habitats. But in order to do that, we will first have to master how to move them about safely and with minimal damage.

The first few experimental deflections would be an important first step toward such a future. And NASA has actually talked occasionally about carrying out an experimental deflection themselves within the next ten years, just to test techniques for it, but on a different rock than Apophis.

So, despite the controversy this is going to be sure to create, the Russian deflection plans would be a big forward step in space development. Let's hope this isn't just empty talk.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Hidden Treasures of Science Fiction: Scrapped Princess!

Is it possible to tell a good science fiction story relying mostly on high fantasy tropes--wizards, magic, knights, prophecies, and so on? There actually have been numerous attempts over the years, but most of them have fallen short or come across as merely clever contrivances. And I thought that's all such attempts could ever be.

That is, until Scrapped Princess, an anime TV series that ran on Japanese TV in 2003, which to my great surprise turned out to be an epic science fiction story 'disguised' as high fantasy. The series is based on number of light novels created by Ichiro Sakaki and boasts the same character designer who worked on Cowboy Bebop. It has received high praises by many reviewers both in Japan and in North America for its excellent story, music, and first-class production values, ending up on numerous 'Best of Anime' lists.

I admit I've become somewhat of a reborn anime fan in the last year. I used to be really into anime in the 90s, but my enthusiasm for it waned after it started becoming increasingly mainstream in the wake of Pokemon, and the need to divert my money at the time to more practical pursuits.

However, thanks to anime shows uploaded online by various sites and dedicated fans, I've been rediscovering a lot of really good anime, and have gotten somewhat back into the hobby. And I'm very glad I have; as a science fiction enthusiast, it has opened up a doorway into a great many good stories I would have never have otherwise discovered. In the past year, I've watched through the entire runs of Cowboy Bebop, Planetes, Last Exile, and most recently, Scrapped Princess.

The 24-epsiode story centers around 15-year-old Pacifica Casull, who at birth was prophecized to be the Poison That Would Destroy the World on her 16th birthday. So she was thrown off a cliff--literally 'scrapped'--as a newborn to make sure that never happened.

But as you can probably guess, she was saved at the last moment and secretly placed with a foster family, where she grew up unaware of her destiny. But just a few months shy of her fateful birthday, she was discovered and her foster parents killed by a murderous mob. She was forced to flee with her older brother and sister, and the story opens with them on the run from the powerful forces who want her dead at all costs--perhaps with justification.

Though the series begins seeming like any another high fantasy tale in the vein of Record of Lodoss War, it quickly becomes clear that this story is actually science fiction via Clark's Law (which states that any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic.) The 'magic' and 'spirits' and 'gods' of their world are all just forms of technology too advanced for them to understand. This may be a bit of a spoiler, but it was something made very plain by the sixth episode, and the rest of the series makes no attempt to disguise from the viewer that everything happening in the series is the result of highly advanced science.

As the world's backstory becomes revealed throughout the series, the reasons for why their world is set up the way it is begins making a lot of sense. It does get a bit convoluted in places, but all the pieces do end up fitting neatly into place by the end.

Scrapped Princess also surprised me in that it was about something we don't see a lot of in anime or in science fiction--brothers and sisters and the bonds siblings share. Pacifica's older adoptive brother and sister--Shannon, a gruff swordsman, and Raquel, a level-headed sorceress--aren't motivated by any hidden agendas or lofty goals. Very simply, they protect Pacifica because she's their beloved little sister, prophecy be damned.

They also honestly act like brothers and sisters too, arguing and trading barbs and sometimes even going against each other out of pique. Pacifica is bratty, Shannon is dour and critical, Raquel is the often exasperated peacemaker. But the strong bond they all share as a family never seems in doubt.

Pacifica comes from the Sailor Moon school of anime heroines. Often times she's whiny, self-absorbed, spoiled, and shallow, especially with her brother Shannon, with whom she often bickers. But beneath that seems a deeper core of compassion and determination which occasionally surfaces, showing the type of woman she would eventually become, if she survives. Throughout the series she struggles a lot emotionally with the fact that so many people are dying and suffering just because she exists, and wonders if maybe the world really would be better off she was 'scrapped.'

The series vacillates back and forth between lighter comedic moments and much more weighty issues. One moment they would be dealing with Soopy Kun (a goofy cartoonish dragon costume that one of the secondary characters ends up habitually wearing), the next they would be dealing with the ultimate fate of mankind and who may have to die for Pacifica to fulfill her destiny. Mostly it finds a good balance between them.

Scrapped Princess also turned out to be very West-friendly. It doesn't rely overly much on anime cliches or nuances of Japanese culture that can often confuse North American viewers new to the medium. There is a fair amount of cheesecake in some episodes and some very occasional but brief peek-a-boo nudity, mostly stemming from the Japanese predilection for frequent bathing. This, taken along with the violence, would probably rate the series at PG-13.

The complete series is available on DVD, which you can find HERE, among other places. Episodes are also available online.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Extrasolar 'Water World' May Have Been Found

For more details, follow THIS link to the original article on MSNBC's Cosmicblog.

Basically, astronomers have spotted a so-called 'super-earth' in orbit about a G-class star 40 light years away that may have an abundant amount of water.

But don't get too excited about finding exotic alien mermaids on it just yet. The planet wouldn't be a fun place for a human to go traipsing about on without an armored space suit on. Its 2 to 10 times the mass of Earth, meaning it would likely have unpleasantly high gravity as well as potentially crushing atmospheric pressure, depending on its composition. Its also unpleasantly close to its primary, with an estimated surface temperature of 400 degrees F.

But still, because of its estimated density, experts are fairly certain it may hold significant amounts of water, even if it would be in the form of water vapor. Plus, depending on its atmospheric composition, the high atmospheric pressure might be enough to keep surface water liquid even at its estimated temperatures.

Discovery of the presence of water on an extrasolar terrestrial world would be a major find, and a good indication that other worlds like Earth, with abundant liquid water and a thriving biosphere, may actually be out there among the wilds of the Milky Way. Just something to keep an eye on in the coming months as astronomers turn other instruments toward that very distant world and see if they can discover anything more.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Decade's Best Science Fiction Animation

Animation would seem to be the most natural medium for science fiction. It literally has infinite creative freedom--anything a creator can envision can be drawn and animated on screen.

Unfortunately, at least in North America, the potential of the medium in scifi has been slow in catching on. Fantasy stories and comedies have dominated American animation for decades, while science fiction has usually been a creature of live-action films. This is not to say there hasn't been a lot great live-action scifi, but it would be nice to see Hollywood really cut loose and see what it could do with animated science fiction. But the situation has improved, haltingly, in the last decade. If I'd done this list ten years ago, it would have been all Japanese anime with one exception (The Iron Giant.) I'm glad to say that this list has a number of very strong American entries, and I hope that trend continues.

And it is probably Japanese anime that has shown, and continues to lead the way, in what can be done with animated science fiction. Though the anime industry has become infamous for certain banal cliches (big-eyed schoolgirls, giant robots, tentacles...), it has also produced some truly classic works of science fiction such as Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Cowboy Bebop. Its too bad that people in North America still tend to turn up their nose at these works simply because they're animated, because they stand shoulder to shoulder with the best live-action science fiction Hollywood has ever produced.

Now for the actual list, which includes both movies and TV series. Please keep in mind that these choices are MY OPINION only. I'm sure many people will disagree and will have their own picks, which is the way it should be. lists like this are always very subjective. Also, I haven't been able to watch everything; its certainly possible that there are some works that blow these all away that I just haven't seen.

First up are the honorable mentions. These works are all great in their own right and deserve to be seen, but lack that certain extra je ne sais quoi that could put them in my top 5.

The Incredibles (movie)
Justice League Unlimited (TV series)
Code Geass (TV series)
Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex (TV Series)
Last Exile (TV Series)

The main picks:

5. LILO & STITCH (2002): A dysfunctional little girl, still mourning the death of her parents, prays for an angel so she can have a friend. She gets the most unlikely one imaginable: a vicious, violent, super-powered monster from outer space.

There's a school of thought that science fiction has to be serious and profound, like Battlestar Galactica and Lost, to be good. I reject that outright. It not to say serious works can't be high quality, but in fiction, its much harder to make people smile and laugh than to make them frown, and takes just as smart a story. With its stylized design, sharp story, and quirkily-realized players, Lilo & Stitch has smarts in spades. From Lilo with her bizarrely skewed worldview to Stitch's gleeful vileness to the awesomely named Cobra Bubbles, the movie is an inventive, fun and character-driven romp that both sends up and greatly improves upon the science fiction monster movie.

4.THE GIRL WHO LEAPT THROUGH TIME(2006): Makoto, a 16-year old student in Japan, discovers on the verge of a fatal accident that she can literally leap backward through time. At first using her newfound ability frivolously, she finds that interfering with past events can have unpredictable and often disastrous consequences. The more she tries to correct them, the more things veer out of her control, until someone dear to her is threatened by the same accident she herself avoided. And when the source of her new power is uncovered, it brings a heart-wrenching revelation.

A much more thoughtful and intelligent take on time travel and romance than the clunky Time Traveler's Wife, this Japanese anime film is fun, intelligent, surreal, and at times profoundly moving. Too often teen-age protagonists are just stand-ins for cynical 40-year-old screenwriters, but Makoto comes across as a real 16-year-old, a tomboy who can be very cocksure one minute and very hesitant and vulnerable the next, especially when she begins to confront her first real romantic feelings. The director Mamoro Hosada very skillfully crafts his tale, allowing the heroine, and the audience with her, to take her time to react and think about developments naturally. I can count the number of truly good time travel movies on the fingers of one hand, and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is one of those.

3. WALL-E (2008): On a future Earth choked lifeless by human garbage and neglect, one last robot spends year after year, century after century, clearing away mountains of trash long after all his fellows shut down. Slowly becoming self-aware, he longs for more from his existence, having only human junk and one lone recording of an old movie musical to guide him. Then, one day, a mysterious probe from space lands nearby...

WALL-E is the very best film created by Hollywood's very best animation studio. It has won scads of awards, even the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. Its been described as lyrical and enthralling, full of a gosh-wow sense of wonder that is missing too much from modern science fiction. The first half of the film, which goes almost completely without dialog, has been called as close to a true work of art that computer animation has yet come. The robots of the film come across as much more fully-realized characters than the humans that are eventually weaved into the story, and the production's attention to detail is no less than astounding. It is the best animated scifi film of the decade, and one of the best overall science fiction films ever, for that matter. A true classic.

2. PLANETES (2003-2004): By the year 2075, an economic and energy boom created by exploiting Helium-3 on the moon has allowed humankind to expand wildly into space, with many small stations, nine large orbiting colonies, and even a full scale city of a hundred thousand on the Moon. However, all that activity generates an enormous amount of orbital debris that can pose a hazard to all the new orbital real estate. Enter the Debris Section, blue-collar stiffs working out of second-hands spacecraft to clean it all up. This 26-episode Japanese anime TV series follows the lives and happenings of these spaceborn garbage collectors.

I cannot reccommend this series highly enough. I've written about it before as a Hidden Treasure Of Science Fiction. For those who love truly hard science fiction, the series is a treasure trove, showcasing very believable near-future technologies with nary a hyperdrive or giant robot in sight. It should be required viewing for would-be scifi writers just for that aspect alone. But this realism extends also to most of its cast of internationally diverse characters, treating nearly all of them with complexity and maturity. Though the series can at first seem a bit off-putting--its main female character starts off as very annoying--it quickly builds up to a number of astounding, smartly-plotted, and at times deeply affecting stories. Combining gritty realism with aspirations toward humanity's greatest hopes, this series may be the single best work of on-screen science fiction Japan has produced since Cowboy Bebop.

1. FUTURAMA (1999-present): Lowly delivery boy Fry accidentally gets frozen for a thousand years and wakes up in a very oddly skewed Thirty-First Century. Befriending cynical robot Bender and the sexy one-eyed Leela, he finds his true destiny--as a delivery boy.

Futurama is to on-screen science fiction what The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy is to literary science fiction--all at once a mainstream comedy, a tour-de force parody of all things science fiction, and a great work of imagination in its own right. I also predict it will ultimately the most long-enduring and popular work of on-screen science fiction to be produced in the last decade, live action or animated, on small screen or large. It just seems to have that kind of populist resonance, that will ensure it will be a well-remembered classic decades from now.

The first thing that stands out about the series is its wonderfully demented characters: Fry, dimwitted and hypnotized by pop culture; Leela, sexy and heroic but self-conscious about her single gigantic eye; Bender, the joyfully amoral, alcoholic robot; Doctor Zoidberg, a clueless sadsack lobsteroid; and many more. There's more detail and dimension just in many of Futurama's walk-on characters than in many works' main ones. Then there's the universe it inhabits, a vast collection of of visual-puns, gonzo scifi motifs, and skewered sacred cows. An alien race addicted to thousand-year-old Earth TV programs; space bee hives; a planet-sized retirement home; a museum that resurrects celebrities just so they can spend all eternity as heads in a jar. It is a world where literally anything can happen, where the creators' imaginations can be fully unleashed, often to highly humorous effect.

It also helps that the series has consistently had some of the smartest writing on TV. As stated earlier, comedy is harder than drama to write well, and the fact that the show so consistently hits the funny bone is proof of the quality of its scripts. Surprisingly, its not all just laughs either. Very occasionally, it waxes both profound, such as when Bender postulates the nature of God, and heart-felt, such as when Fry learns the fate of his time-lost brother and nephew. Futurama is definitely a show for the ages.