Friday, 16 June 2017

The Good Lucifer

Prometheus was one of the titans, the generation of gods whose rule preceded that of the more famous Olympians. His name means ‘forethought’, and he was one of the few titans who sided with Zeus, the Olympians’ leader, rather than Cronos, father of Zeus and titan leader. As such, when the other titans were thrown into Tartarus (darkest pit of the underworld), Prometheus was left in peace.

However, there was a problem. He saw mankind scrabbling about on the Earth, lower than gods but barely above animals, and Prometheus wanted to help them. Zeus forbade it, perhaps fearing men might usurp the supremacy of gods in time.

The titan defied the Olympian, and stole fire from Mount Olympus, which he then gave to people. Knowledge spread rapidly, and the use of fire kickstarted technology. It was used for heat and light, melting down ore and casting metal tools. People benefited greatly and civilisation flourished.

But Zeus was not amused.

Prometheus was chained to a rock, and each day a great eagle came to peck out his liver. The titan could not die, and each day the liver grew anew, only to be feasted upon once again.

It’s a sort of immortal martyrdom that Prometheus suffered to give a great gift to us all.

And yet, there are startling similarities between this story, which portrays Prometheus as a clear benefactor of mankind, and the Devil in the Garden of Eden (Satan, of course, depicted in a rather different light).

For those unaware, in the Bible God creates man and then woman (Adam and Eve). The pair live together in an idyllic garden, Eden, where all is lovely and super. God orders them not to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and they obey.

God then apparently fell asleep or wandered off, or briefly forgot he was omniscient and omnipotent, because Lucifer, masquerading as a snake, slithered into Eden. He persuaded Eve to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, and she did so, and gained awareness (not least shame about her nudity). Eve then persuaded Adam to eat.

God returned and was furious. He banished the pair from Eden forever, and handed out punishments. Eve would face pain in childbirth, and Adam would have to toil and labour in order to survive. The snake appears to have gotten off quite easy, as God punished him by sentencing the serpent to ‘slither on its belly’.

The similarities to the Prometheus story are pretty obvious, but so too is the contrast between Prometheus the friend of mankind, bringing us knowledge at great personal risk (and, ultimately, cost) and Satan, the meddler who interfered in paradise and got us thrown out. However, that does lead to the interesting conclusion that, in the Bible, ignorance actually was bliss.

You might simply sign this up to the Prometheus figure being pagan and therefore condemned (as an aside, Lucifer means light-bringer). But lots of pagan ideas (check out how much Christianity stole from Mithridates’ followers) were simply borrowed wholesale, given a lick of paint and incorporated into Christianity. So, why not the story of how mankind gained knowledge?


Thaddeus

Friday, 9 June 2017

Space Adventures of the Proximate Kind

There are plans already under consideration for the colonisation of Mars. Bases on the Moon, mining the asteroid fields, exploring Titan (Saturn’s moon) for life, all are on the horizon.

To be honest, it’s all quite exciting, both in real life and in terms of the sci-fi that can be written about such things. Scientific advancement, commercial gain and military advantage could all play a role in the near term exploration of the solar system.

On the scientific front, Mars and Titan present the most intriguing prospects. Mars is nearer, although getting there will still take months. Establishing a base will require substantial resources, but modern technology does offer some short-cuts that even a few years ago would have been impossible. For example, 3D printers mean that you don’t need every precise structure or tool to be carried with the human crew. Printing materials could be sent on ahead with unmanned or robotic expeditions, and future blueprints for improved structures could be sent from Earth and printed on Mars.

Any trip is believed to be one way, because of the lower gravity on Mars that would create health problems for anyone returning to Earth (not to mention prolonged exposure to zero-G on the way to Mars). For a long term settlement, a stable gene pool would be needed (which would also tie in neatly with the generally international approach towards space exploration). Of course, not everyone has to go at once. Farming would require internal agriculture (cultivating Mars would require it to be terraformed). Energy supply and other fuel sources is an interesting one. Solar panels could add some juice but I’m not sure if that’d be sufficient. Due to long flight times and the potential for mishaps, sustainability would have to be the goal. If the colony were reliant on fuel sent from Earth then it could easily find itself cut short.

There are diamonds the size of cars in Jupiter. Unfortunately, fishing them out is technically problematic. However, the delicious deposits contained within the asteroid belt are altogether more accessible.

In my short story Dead Weight (in Explorations: Through the Wormhole), I had to rework the early draft because I’d wrongly believed the Mars-Jupiter asteroid belt was some sort of Star Wars maelstrom. It’s not. There are big open spaces between the various rocks and, although you’d still need to be careful, mining them is eminently possible in the near(ish) future. The bigger problem is likely to be how you divvy up fairly, between either companies or nations, the resources of the asteroid belt.

An international company could be the way to go. So far, after the 1960s space race between superpowers, space exploration has generally been along rather friendlier lines than terrestrial politics. Whether that continues remains to be seen.

Mining could probably be done largely by robots, which would dramatically reduce the cost and complexity of operations. Humans are a pain in the arse to move through space. They need oxygen, food, water, psychological well-being (an increasingly important factor for longer flights), somewhere to get rid of the waste they produce daily, and if you land them too quickly they turn into meat paste (landing a robot too hard will break it, but they won’t leave behind upset relatives).

Titan is a moon of Saturn, and the only other place in the solar system where liquid water seems to exist. This presents the best possible chance of finding life in our near neighbourhood, which is very exciting until you remember that also means it makes an impending apocalypse a lot likelier. Leaving aside the Fermi Paradox and the Great Filter, life on Titan could also present a serious pathogen problem. It is, nevertheless, a fascinating prospect.

Any visit to Titan would be much harder than visiting Mars. For a start, it’s a lot further away. That means more time in zero-G and more time floating in a tin can, which will increase physical and psychological effects. Secondly, a mission would probably be about collecting samples and the like. Now, you could do this just with robots. That’s cheaper and safer. But humans are smarter than robots and more adaptable. The gravity, however, is less than half that of Mars. So, if you’re sending a human, that’s moving from prolonged zero-G to 0.14g. Very much a one way trip for something organic and squishy (it also raises the question of what happens if you actually found something advanced, say a space-donkey, and tried bringing it back to Earth. The affect would probably be the same as if you tried moving an Earth-donkey to a planet with 7g).

However, the Moon has surface gravity of 0.16g. That’s a seventh higher (akin to a human moving to a world with 1.14g). You’d notice, but it wouldn’t be horrendous. Species (or returning humans) could go to a lunar base for experimentation. No need to try and establish a permanent base on Titan, the gravity’s practically identical, and it’s miles (and then some) closer to Earth for fuel, communication, supplies and so on.

Most of the above assumes that we continue to have relatively friendly space adventures. However, the history of the human race is one riddled with conflict. Any nation that acquired dominance of space would have huge advantages. Asteroid-mining would give a resource and commercial advantage, access to the Moon, Mars and Titan would offer scientific progress denied to lesser nations, and the military aspect of near-Earth domination would be significant.

There are a number of existing or near-term weapons projects that operate from or in space. Tungsten rods operate by firing a rod of tungsten (as you may have guessed) at the Earth. The kinetic energy of it hitting the planet is immense, but also highly localised. It’ll annihilate a house, and the next door neighbour will be fine. (Sidenote, all ICBMs have nuclear warheads because a smaller payload would have less destructive potential than the kinetic energy of the missile itself).

Masers are also in development currently and would probably work in space. The problem with space warfare is that damage would commonly include explosive decompression and total destruction of the ‘enemy’. It’s hard to think of anything other than a war of annihilation (you might think of an EMP to knock out the electrics, but do that and how long will the oxygen and warmth last?).

Hopefully we won’t see military nonsense in space, but we’ll find out in the coming decades.


Thaddeus

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger – Episode 3 out now!

The Tiger and The Demon, the third episode of Wandering Phoenix and Roaming Tiger, came out today.

It’s the fun, action-packed finale to the initial run of the serial (first episode free), featuring dramatic plot twists and memorable characters. Perfect Saturday morning adventure, set in a mythologised version of Ancient China. Enjoy!







Thaddeus

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Dragon Age – What I want to see next

I really like the Dragon Age series. Origins is one of my favourite RPGs, and whilst DA2 was clearly rushed, it also had a certain charm (and a rare case of retconning improving something, namely the Qunari). Inquisition had its plus points but also took a step in the wrong direction, I think. Size was emphasised over quality. Maps were enormous but the side-quests were shopping lists.

Inspired by this great article by Shinobi here’s what I’d like to see in the next Dragon Age game.

But first, a note. It’s eminently possible, probable, even, that a Dragon Age Tactics game will come out. I have no idea if this would be before or after DA4 (my guess is before). These suggestions are about a main franchise sequel to Inquisition rather than the intriguing Dragon Age meets XCOM game that’s been mooted.


Origins. I do like the increased mentions of race and class (mostly mage) in Inquisition, but the origin stories in the first game were a great addition to help make every combination of race/class feel more distinct, and I’d like to see them brought back.

Combat tactics. These were present in the first two games and inexplicably axed in Inquisition, replaced with a rather rubbish system whereby the skills were tagged as Use, Use Often, and Do Not Use. The Origins/DA2 approach of having, say, Alistair use an attack to knock down enemies but only if they were elite or higher was a straightforward and effective way of ensuring you didn’t have to micromanage companions in combat.

Weightier decisions. In Origins (I’m harking back to it a lot, but it’s a bloody good game) there were numerous stark choices to make, from a possessed child to werewolf attacks on elves who might not be entirely innocent. These choices affected who your allies would be in the final battle. Whilst there are decisions in Inquisition (who to put on the Orlesian throne, for example) they don’t actually seem to have much consequence in gameplay.

I’d also like more moral conflict within parties (this could tie in with the decisions point above). It’s an approximately medieval world, and this can (and historically did) lead to some difficult decisions. If you’re being besieged and there’s food for 10 days, or 40 if you force out all the non-combatants, then you’ve got a dilemma. Suppose you’ve accepted the surrender of a 1,000 men, but an enemy army has appeared and is blocking your access to fresh water, which is running out fast. They offer to let you past if you release the prisoners. Do you do it? Try and negotiate as your water runs out? Kill the prisoners so the men guarding them can join the army and battle the enemy? Or, on a smaller, more personal scale, suppose an arranged marriage could end a war, but one or both of the couple don’t want it. Do you force them to bring peace to many and misery to them? Or let them have freedom at the cost of ongoing conflict? Or what if you’re chasing enemies and they take refuge in a chantry? Do you burn it down or camp outside, risking being attacked by their followers? Difficult choices create meaningful decisions, and the potential for moral conflict.

I’ve already mentioned side-quests. The shopping list approach (fetch 10 dead rams to feed some refugees) is boring. It’s worse still when put alongside the excellent side-quests of The Witcher 3. Quality over quantity, writing little storylines over Fetch X, is much better as well as providing the opportunity to give more depth to role-playing and companions.

Add more weight to judgements. The judgement system in Inquisition was a good addition, capping off a questline by sentencing the defeated foe. However, the upshot was mostly you lop off the bugger’s head, throw them in jail, or they become your ally (which usually meant a small bonus side-quest from the war table). I think this should be expanded. If someone’s imprisoned, they could escape or be rescued, or even have a ransom offered for their release. If they’re killed, their followers/family might seek vengeance. If they become an ally, they could betray you, or (as a one-off) become a party member. I’m not saying have this for every judgement, just make them possibilities that have to be considered. In Inquisition, the ‘good’ option (make them an ally) got most approval and in-game bonuses. There’s no downside. Adding betrayal possibilities would help balance that.

Base improvements to be more substantial. I don’t mind if the cosmetic stuff has no gameplay impact, but other decisions (focusing resources on income or information, diplomacy or military) could be used to affect how things progress. Originally, Inquisition was going to have every conquered keep in the field be designated diplomatic, military or espionage, and something like that could work well.

I’m not a DLC fan. I didn’t get it for Inquisition, though I do know how things turned out. And when I buy a game, I expect the whole storyline in the game, not to be finished off in DLC. Extra content should be just that.

Bring back the murder knife. It was possible, and fun, for the Origins protagonist (the Warden) to be pretty damn evil. A bit more in the way of dark options would be good.


Frivolous stuff:
More armour styles. Some of the armour/clothing looked pretty nifty in Inquisition and I liked the customisation options, but there’s not much range.
Better haircuts. It’s a shame they axed the original set (also used in DA2) because there were only one or two I liked in Inquisition.
A photo mode. I loved this in The Last of Us Remastered.
Bianca and Scout Harding as companions.


Thaddeus