Universe Today: Are Intelligent Civilizations Doomed?

Gaia_galaxyMy friend over at Universe Today, Fraser Cain, has been busy of late! In his latest podcast, he asks an all-important question that addresses the worrisome questions arising out of the Fermi Paradox. For those unfamiliar with this, the paradox states that given the age of the universe, the sheer number of stars and planets, and the statistical likelihood of some of the supporting life, how has humanity failed to find any indications of intelligent life elsewhere?

It’s a good question, and raised some frightening possibilities. First off, humanity may be alone in the universe, which is frightening enough prospect given its sheer size. Nothing worse than being on a massive playground and knowing you only have but yourself to play with. A second possibility is that extra-terrestrial life does exist, but has taken great pains to avoid being contacting us. An insulting, if understandable, proposition.

alien-worldThird, it could be that humanity alone has achieved the level of technical development necessary to send out and receive radio transmissions or construct satellites. That too is troubling, since it would means that despite the age of the universe, it took this long for an technologically advanced species to emerge, and that there are no species out there that we can learn from or look up to.

The fourth, and arguably most frightening possibility, is the Great Filter theory – that all intelligent life is doomed to destroy itself, and we haven’t heard from any others because they are all dead. This concept has been explored by numerous science fiction authors – such as Stephen Baxter (Manifold: Space), Alastair Reynolds (the Revelation Space universe) and Charles Stross (Accelerand0) – all of whom employ a different variation and answer.

kardashev_scaleAs explored by these and other authors, the biggest suggestions are that either civilizations will eventually create weapons or some kind of programmed matter which will destroy – such as nuclear weapons, planet busters, killer robots, or nanotech that goes haywire (aka. “grey goo”). A second possibility is that all species eventually undergo a technological/existential singularity where they shed their bodies and live out their lives in a simulated existence.

A third is that intelligent civilizations fell into a “success trap”, outgrowing their resources and their capacity to support their numbers, or simply ruined their planetary environment before they could get out into the universe. As usual, Fraser gives a great rundown on all of this, explaining the Fermi Paradox is, the statistical likelihood of life existing elsewhere, and what likely scenarios could explain why humanity has yet to find any proof of other civilizations.

Are Intelligent Civilizations Doomed:

And be sure to check out the podcast that deals strictly with the Fermi Paradox, from roughly a year ago:

The Fermi Paradox Explained:

Chasm City

Next up in my review of Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe is the prequel novel and setting piece known as Chasm City! Released in 2001, one year after Revelation Space and a year before Redemption Ark (I know, prolific, aint he?), the story takes place outside of the main trilogy, but details the setting and some of the characters who will play an important role in it.

As the name would suggest, the setting of this novel is the all-important location known as Chasm City itself. In Revelation Space, we got treated to an earful about this place since it is the undisputed hub of the known universe. Or at least it was before the Melding Plague, a terrible nanotechnological virus, turned the place into a twisted, gothic nightmare.

According to Reynold’s many descriptions of the place throughout the series, Chasm City was not only the capitol of Yellowstone (chief planet of the Epsilon Eridani system), it was also the center of the universe when it came to commerce, innovation and technological progress. It’s multi-tiered cities, contained within the “Mosquito Net” (i.e. habitation dome) were a marvel of nanotechnological achievement, living buildings that were capable of maintaining themselves.

The name itself referred to the fact that the city itself was built in a chasm which was open to the planet’s interior. From this chasm, large clouds of gas would erupt periodically, which the inhabitants used to fashion an atmosphere. In orbit, a huge array of satellites and orbital platforms had been installed, known as the “Glitter Band” due to their unrivaled beauty and the fact the wealthiest citizens maintained opulent homes in orbit.

And last, but not least, Chasm City was the home of the human faction known as the “Demarchists”, a name which is an amalgam of Democratic and Anarchy. These people were the most advanced factions in the universe, save for perhaps the Conjoiners, who used implant technology and wireless communications to create a society that needed no official offices or institutions. All decision making processes were run by direct democracy and the law maintained by police who enforced the public will. Sure, there were still offices and ranks, but the general trend was towards de-structurizing and an avoidance of hierarchy.

Plot Synopsis:
The first thread story opens on the planet known as Sky’s Edge, a planet in orbit of 61 Cygni A, where an enforcer named Tanner Mirabel is looking for a post-mortal noble named Argent Reivich. This man, we quickly learn, was responsible for the death of the wife of Tanner’s employer and is fleeing the planet for Yellowstone. Tanner and his friend pursue him, a chase which takes them into the depths of Chasm City and provides a first-hand look at the effects the Melding Plague has had and the illicit activities that have taken over the now fallen city.

In addition, two more threads open through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences. It is established early on that Tanner has been infected by an “indoctrination virus” – a sort of bio-engineered program which forces those who have it to experience religious visions. He interprets the dreams he has as a symptom, which are predictably concerned with the life of Sky Haussmann, the oft-revered and hated man who founded the colony of Sky’s Edge. This constitutes thread two of the story, where Tanner dreams of Sky’s childhood aboard the Flotilla that traveled to Sky’s Edge from Earth many centuries in the past, aboard generational ships where he was amongst the waking crew.

In the third thread, Tanner relives the traumatic events that led him to Yellowstone in pursuit of Reivich. Apparently, Tanner worked for a man named Cahuella, an arms dealer who is being pursued by Reivich because he sold arms to a rival family which used them to kill his parents. We also learn that Tanner loved Cahuella’s wife, a woman named Gritta. According to the flashbacks he experiences, it was while deploying to the jungles of Sky’s Edge, in an attempt to intercept Reivich, that the incident that led to Gitta’s death took place.

Upon reaching Chasm City, Tanner sees first hand what has become of the city. A once technological marvel, it has now degenerated into a dark and ugly, the buildings appearing as twisted, diseased trees. The Glitter Band has fallen into disrepair, and is now known as the “Rust Belt”. There is also a lucrative trade in what is referred to as “Dream Fuel”, which appears to render users temporarily immune to the Melding Plague. And last, there is the “Game” which Tanner becomes trapped in, where residents of the Canopy (those few still-privileged people who live close to the Mosquito Net) hunt people who live down in “The Mulch” (aka. down below).

After escaping the “gamers”, Tanner takes a female resident of the Canopy hostage and learns that she is part of the lucrative “Dream Fuel” trade. With her help, they travel deep into Yellowstone’s underground network and tunnels and find the source of it, which appears to be a giant, sentient slug. This begins to line up with some of the vision’s Tanner has been having involving Sky and the Flotilla, which continue to haunt his dreams.

Basically, Tanner is now aware that Sky took over control of the Flotilla after his father was murdered by an embedded agent. In a twist, Sky allowed this to happen because he was outraged to learn that his parents had taken him from another family that had died while in cryosleep. While in command of the fleet, he learned that they were being pursued by a strange, phantom ship. When they investigated, they discovered that it was an alien vessel that had morphed to look like one of their own. Inside – drumroll please – was a giant slug living in a big pool of Dream Fuel!

Yes, it seems that the fuel is in fact the organic secretions of the Slug, and that they are a sentient race that has been living in hiding ever since the emergence of a terrible alien threat that has been destroying all space-faring life. For those who have read Revelation Space at this point, it is clear the slug is referring to the Inhibitors. Hence why the Slug ship was following the Flotilla, it had hoped to remain inconspicuous by mimicking other species and their ships. The one currently being used to provide Dream Fuel is another, one which chose to hide deep within Yellowstone to avoid detection.

At the same time, Tanner becomes aware of one horrid fact. After remembering everything from the night where Gitta died, Tanner comes to the realization that it was he that killed her. In the course of their advance through the jungle to intercept Reivich, he and his men ambushed their camp and took Gitta hostage. Rather than let them get away, Tanner opened fire and accidentally killed her. However, he is confused because his memories end with Cahuella taking his own revenge by feeding Tanner to one of his giant snakes.

Nevertheless, Tanner gets back on Reivich’s trail and finally corners him in orbit. There, he finds the ruined body of Reivich who has been hooked up to a machine that was supposed to recor*d his consciousness and create an “alpha” (i.e. a living computer construct) of him. However, the process was rushed, and now Reivich’s body has been irreparably damaged. Close to death, he reveals another twist. It seems that he is not Tanner after all, but Cahuella himself! Small hints are given throughout the novel tot his effect, but he realizes that it is true when Tanner himself walks in!

Yes, it seems that Cahuella couldn’t deal with the anguish of losing his wife and decided to switch memories and appearances with Tanner while he was busy torturing him. However, Tanner managed to escape after Cahuella left and made his way to Yellowstone to get some payback of his own. The two fight, but eventually Cahuella realizes his body contains all kinds of enhancements, such as poisonous snakes’ teeth, which he used to overpower Tanner. Reivich dies too, and Cahuella is left with his many painful revelations.

Another painful revelation is the fact that the dreams he’s having or not the result of the indoctrination virus, but his own memories coming to the surface. It seems that he, Caheulla, is in fact Sky Haussmann himself, and that after sacrificing several innocent lives to get his own ship to 61 Cygni A ahead of the rest of the Flotilla. Because of this, the world was named Sky’s Edge, a sly reference (and criticism) of all he did to make it there first. After he set down, he was set upon by other groups of colonists who wanted him brought to justice. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t crucified publicly, but substituted himself with a look0alike and then slipped into the jungle to live out his life in a new persona (Cahuella).

Seeking redemption now, he returns to Chasm City and teams up with his lady friend in the hopes of making some changes. For one, the Dream Fuel trade is to be regulated and humane now, no more torturous extraction from the poor Slug. Second, the “Game” is reformed so that the hunt is for volunteers only, with plenty of rules and chances for the “hunted” to save themselves after they are caught. With all this in place, Tanner Mirabel, aka. Caheulla, aka. Sky Haussmann, settles in for a life he can live with and says goodbye to a life of revenge and running.

To begin with the good points, this book was once again an intriguing and exciting romp through the Revelation Space universe. After that first installment, this book cashed in on all the buzz and interest he had created for his fictitious backdrops, such as Sky’s Edge and Chasm City, both very interesting place in their own right. It also detailed a number of elements that were brought up but not developed too much in the first novel, such as the game “Shadowplay”, which Ana Khouri was a member of. At the same time, it also discussed and delved into the dynamics of life and the wars on Sky’s Edge, which also came up in relation to Khouri’s character.

And of course, there was plenty more of the same interesting stuff that set’s Reynold’s universe apart. The concept of time dilation, post-mortality, alpha-level simulations, the Inhibitors, the Melding Plague, nanotechnology, cybernetic implants, and the “indoctrination virus”. All of these elements were brought up in Revelation Space or the subsequent novels to one degree or another, and it was good that Reynold’s side-stepped the trilogy in order to provide some more deep background and development for these concepts.

But above all, the primary focus of the novel, which was on Chasm City itself, was indispensable to this series. A once powerhouse of technology and civility, the Gothic, steampunk-themed environment is just so interesting and rich that it really had to have it’s own book. After reading about it in the first novel and seeing subsequent references to it later in the series, I just knew that Reynold’s would have to come back to it at some point. There was simply too much there for it to a passing mention, not to mention too much in the way of implied significance.

In addition to being an richly detailed environment that inspires so much mental imagery, Chasm City is a fitting metaphor for how technological progress can so easily go from being the stuff of dreams to the stuff of nightmares. It only makes sense that the urban center where all the greatest technological leaps of the future were developed – brain implants, man-machine interface, alpha-level constructs, clinical immortality, nanotech, biotech – that it is also be the place where it all came crashing down. And what did it was especially appropriate – a nano-virus which hit them where they were most vulnerable by perverting the very technology they were so dependent on.

As for the weaknesses, well, they are something that comes up a lot in Reynold’s works. For one, there are too many twists! Why, for example, was it necessary for Cahuella to take on Tanner Mirabel’s identity? Wasn’t it enough that the man who failed to save the woman he loved, who also had a bit of an elicit thing going with her, was out for revenge? And why for that matter did he also need to be Sky Haussmann. One hidden identity was enough, and given its importance to the storyline, it would have been enough for him to be Sky.

Think about it, the reviled and worshiped founded of the colony runs into the jungle and takes on the identity of a simple bounty hunter. Wouldn’t that have been better than assuming the identity of a high-profile arms dealer? And since he settled down to become a professional hunter in Chasm City anyway, wouldn’t him being Tanner all along provide more symmetry? And to explain the whole memory wipe thing, just say that he assumed the identity of Tanner completely to avoid any slip ups, or because he genuinely wanted a new lease on life. Playing it the other way was just plain weird.

Also, there are some other odd elements in the book, stuff that seemed less creative and more far-fetched than his usual story elements. For example, we see that in Chasm City, people rely on more than just “Dream Fuel” to protect themselves from the Melding Plague and prolong their lives now that they can no longer depend on nanotechnology. One of them is a genetic enhancement using Koi fish DNA. Seeing as how the Koi is quasi-immortal and will continue to grow so long as they have new environments to grow into, the residents of Chasm City decided to harness their genetic material in order to prolong their lives indefinitely.

In fact, Tanner/Cahuella/Sky is shown to a sort of shrine in one of the city’s thoroughfares where a massive, centuries-old  Koi is being kept in a tank and revered. And it struck me as just plain strange. Sure, this scene provides a sort of commentary on the vagaries of clinical immortality, but it still felt oddly out of place. So, for that matter, did the descriptions of the various people of the city who have used genetic enhancements to elongate their faces and skulls in unnatural shapes, as well as grow wings and other appendages. I get that in this universe, people can do some rather odd things with their biology, but why the hell would they want to? Much like hypercats, superchimps, the winged unicorns and other such creations from the series, it felt like Reynold’s is getting off-kilter and being weird for the sake of weird.

But other than that, the book is a worthy read and kind of required if you want to be able to make sense of the series. Like I said before, there were aspects of Redemption Ark that I didn’t get until well after I read this book, and since it’s placement in the series comes before the other books, it behooves the reader to tackle this one before moving on to the later books in the series.

Coming up next, Absolution Gap and the conclusion to Alastair Reynold’s lineup!

Generational Ships

systems___cryogenics_1Ever since my writing group and I got on the subject of space and colonization, some recurring themes have come up. For starters, there’s the concept of interstellar space travel, the kind that doesn’t involve fictitious Faster-Than-Light drive systems and therefore cannot exceed the speed of light. In those situations, which are far more likely to happen in this and the next century, the question of how to keep crews alive until your arrival keeps popping up.

One way is to utilize some kind of cryogenic procedure, where passengers are put into “reefersleep” for the duration of the journey and awakened upon arrival. Though it might sound a bit crude, it’s actually a very practical solution to the problems of how to keep a crew preserved and provided for during the incredibly long voyages that space travel entails. This procedure has come up repeatedly in the realm of science fiction, particularly H.P. Lovecraft’s Cool Air, Robert A Heinlein’s The Door into Summer, Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, PKD’s Ubik, the Alien franchise, and the Revelation Space universe, just to name a few.

RAMAThe other solution, which is the subject of this post, is to construct generational ships. These are basically “interstellar arks” where people and even entire biospheres are transported from one location to another. Crews are kept in waking conditions, experience subjective time, and entertain themselves in interactive, simulated or virtual environments in order to stay sane until they complete their voyage. Though much more expensive to build, these ships are an equally elegant solution of what to do about non-FTL space travel and colonization.

These two have made many appearances in science fiction, and I’ve compiled a list of all the Generation Ships, Space Arks, and O’Neil Cylinders I could find.

At the beginning of each episode, it was explained how Earth was used up, prompting humanity to seek out a new home. This is what eventually led them to 34 Tauri  in the 22nd century where they began the process of terraforming and settling its the many worlds and moons. Though it was never explained in detail, mainly because the show was cancelled before they could (screw you Fox!), indications are given in the movie Serenity and the expanded universe that this involved Generation Ships.

In the movie, this was done mainly through visuals, where a large of flotilla dusts off from Earth and eventually finds its way to the system of the White Sun. It was also said that the process of terraforming took decades, which would require that the crews had somewhere to stay while the terraformers did their work. Also, speculative point here, but it would stand to reason that the fleet would have to have some pretty large ships to accommodate both settlers and the kind of equipment they would need.

Chasm City:
This novel, set in Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe, involves a large thread that follows the settlement of the world known as Sky’s Edge. This took place early in the universe’s backstory, before the development of lighthuggers and therefore required that the ships used be able to support crews for long periods of time.

From Reynold’s descriptions, these ships were large, cylindrical vessels that boasted vast bays to hold their many cryogenically-frozen passengers. At the same time, the waking crew needed vast facilities to provide for their needs. These included mess halls, sleeping quarters, medical bays, and recreational facilities. Sky Haussmann, one of the children amongst the crew, had a nursery with a robotic clown and virtual backgrounds.

This divide, between a waking crew and frozen settlers, represents a sort of compromise between the cryoship design and the generation ship. On the one hand, you’ve got the majority of your crew at near-frozen temperatures and perfectly preserved for the voyage. On the other, you’ve got a crew walking about and looking for food, rest and entertainment. However, it still qualifies, and even inspired my group in our quest to design the perfect story for colonization!

Orphans of the Sky:
One of the earliest known examples of the use of generation ships in sci-fi, this two-novella set was also one of Heinlein’s first works. Like Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama, it features a massive cylindrical ship that is drifting through space. But unlike Rama, Heinlein’s ship, known as the Vanguard, has become a derelict that is permanently adrift in space.

As the story goes on, we learn that this was due to a mutiny which killed all the piloting officers many generations back. Since that time, the descendants of the surviving loyal crew have forgotten the purpose and nature of their ship and lapsed into a pre-technological culture marked by superstition. In fact, they now view their ship as the cosmos itself, and interpret its “voyage” as a metaphor.

The crew are also ruled by an oligarchy of “Officers” and “Scientists”, at the head of which is the descendent of the original captain. Much like pre-industrial times, most crew members are dedicated to a simple life where they tend to agriculture and are illiterate. Seldom does anyone ever venture to the “upper decks” where the “muties” (aka. “mutants” or “mutineers”) are kept. These individuals, it is learned, know the truth of the ship’s purpose, another reason why they are ostracized from the rest of the crew.

As you can plainly see, this book not only featured a generation ship and some rather hard science when it came to colonization, it also raised some valid and interesting questions about how space travel and confining environments could effect subsequent generations of people. Those who were born into an enclosed environment would come to know it as their whole world. And in the absence of external, verifiable facts (such as messages from Earth or historical records), they could even be led to believe there was nothing beyond their walls.

Paradises Lost:
Similar in tone and setting to Heinlein’s Orphans, this story by Ursula K. LeGuin focuses instead on the psychological impact that generational travel would have on a human crew. Adapted into a musical, this story explores the basic question of what happens when you spend your whole life (and entire generations) traveling toward a goal, only to find that the endpoint has become otherworldly and unattainable?

The story takes place aboard a generation ship known as the Discovery, where people are born and die on a trip to colonize a distant planet. Much like the Orphans, the ship becomes their entire universe and begins to seem more tangible to them than Earth or their mission to colonize a new world. The reason for this quite simple; as the journey goes on, those who knew a life on Earth are slowly dying off, and subsequent generations know about these things only through tales and lore.

As a result, a new religion is borne which teaches that the ship is “spaceship heaven” and that it is bound for eternity. This religion is known as Bliss, and the younger generation are embracing it against the wishes of the older. The story is told through the eyes of two elder characters – Hsing and Luis. They know their lives will end on board the ship and that their mission lies in the hands of future generations. Naturally, they worry since said generations are convinced that they should never leave the ship they call heaven.

Rendevouz with Rama:
One of the best examples of a generational ship, which extra-terrestrial in origin! Known as Rama, this massive space cylinder was basically a self-contained world that was carrying the Raman civilization from one corner of the galaxy to another. When a crew from Earth arrive and begin to survey the interior, they begin to notice several tell-tale features.

For one, the interior contains several structures which appear to be arranged in “cities” – odd blocky shapes that look like buildings, and streets with shallow trenches in them, looking like trolley car tracks. In addition, there is a sea that stretches in a band around Rama dubbed the Cylindrical Sea, and trenches cut into the sides that appear to be windows.

In time, all the machinery comes to light, thanks in part to the admission of light through the ship’s long windows. Small creatures that appear to be biological machines (aka. “biots”) begin to come out as well and conducting routine maintenance. In time, they come to the conclusion that the buildings constitute factories, that the cylindrical sea contains trace elements and bio-matter which they will begin to convert into “Ramans” as soon they get in range of their destination.

In the end, it seemed that the Ramans determined that the best way to spread their species was to break them down into their component parts, place them aboard ships that would float for generations through space, and begin recompiling them once they got to where they wanted to go. Ultimately, Sol was just a stopover on their long journey, and more ships were coming in subsequent novels. Still, this first exposure to the alien generation ship was an educational experience!

Written by Larry Niven, the Ringworld series is considered one of the greatest examples of exploratory sci-fi. Set in the Known Space universe of the distant future, the story revolves around the discovery and exploration of the Ringworlds, an artificial habitation ring built by an extinct civilization. With the makers of these rings long dead, the rings themselves are adrift and their engineered inhabitants degenerated into a primitive state.

These artificial rings are roughly one million kilometers wide and one thousand kilometers across, approximately the diameter of Earth’s orbit. Each one encircles a Sol-type star which provides both life sustaining energy and light. And of course, they rotate, thus providing artificial gravity that is 99.2% as strong as Earth’s through the action of centrifugal force. And night is provided by an inner ring of shadow squares which are connected to each other by thin ultra strong shadow square wire.

The ringworld has a habitable flat inner surface that is equivalent in area to approximately three million Earth-sized planets. Hence, it is able to sustain extensive ecosystems and all forms of life. This appears to be purpose of the rings in the end, the creation of habitable areas in space that were removed from terrestrial environments. And added bonus was the ability to transport said life over vast distances through space without having to stick them in an enclosed environment.

So really, these things were like a gigantic version of a generation ship, capable of moving an entire species or civilization through space.

Stargate Atlantis:

The series Stargate Atlantis contained a few mentions of vessels which fit the profile of generation ships. For starters, there was the Ancients City Ship, a self-contained city that was also a spaceship. Though it was capable of FTL travel, the vessel was capable of sustaining a city-sized population for extended periods of time as it traveled through space.

In addition, in the third season episode entitle “The Ark”, Colonel Sheppard’s team discovers a facility inside a hollowed-out moon that turns out to be an ark created by the people of the planet around which the moon is in orbit. The ark was built to preserve the existence of the people from the planet so that they could reemerge and rebuild their civilization. Generations prior, these people had fought a disastrous war with the Wraith in which they were almost exterminated.

Though not a vessel per se, the moon base served the same purpose as a generation ship. Though the moon orbited their original homeworld and the people really weren’t traveling through space (except in orbit around their planet), the principle was essentially the same. People were kept in stasis until the day came when they could awaken to transplant themselves on the intended world, thus ensuring the survival and expansion of their civilization.

Yes, the examples abound! In fact, the concept of the generation ship and related ideas are so fertile that I’m kind of surprised that it took me so long to really appreciate it. But then again, I came to a lot of the classics a little late in life. Ah well, it doesn’t really matter when you get to the destination, provided that you get there and enjoy the journey. Which is kind of the concept behind a generation ship isn’t it? If you can’t just warp your way across the universe – if you got to take your time and drift slow – you might as well travel in style!

Cool Ships (volume XI)

armageddonBack once more to the Eve universe, thank you Mr. Zidar for suggesting it in the first place! Here we have the Armageddon Battleship, the main heavy warship of the Amarr Empire. Packing a lot of firepower into its long, heavy frame, command of one of these is considered the greatest honor an Amarrian Captain can acheive within the Empire.

In terms of armaments, the Armageddon is studded with heavy turret batteries. Its forward section is also heavily reinforced, giving it the ability to ram into enemy ships while pulverizing them with weapon’s fire. It is also heavily shielded in addition to its armor, making it virtually impregnable to all but the most heavily armed cruisers.

Battle Galaxy Carrier:
battlegalaxy-carrierMuch like the SDF-1 from the Macross universe, the Galaxy Carrier is massive transforming ship that comes in two modes. In carrier mode, it is a massive ship that is capable of space flight and sea faring. In its battle mode, it takes the form of a massive mecha which is capable of kicking some very serious ass!

Build in the early-mid 21st century by the New United Nations government, its primary purpose was to act as a colonization vessel for the Macross fleet. And unlike previous colonization vessels, it boasted many new technologies – such as cybernetics and implants – which were meant to continually evolve as the ship traveled through space. On top of all that, it possesses cutting edge stealth technologies that make it capable of slipping past Zentraedi forces and blockades.

battlegalaxy-attackIn terms of armaments, the Battle Galaxy lives up to its name! In addition to an advanced Gunship Type Macross Cannon, which converts into its main firearm when in battle mode, it also has 12 heavy beam cannons (also available in battle mode), multiple phalanx beam cannons and missile launchers, and a compliment short range micro-missile batteries for point-defense.

Firstborn Monolith:
monolithIt would be an understatement to call this one a classic. Taken from the Arthur C. Clarke novel and the movie of the same name, the Monolith was the mysterious aliens means of transport in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Known as the Firstborn, this race was basically the first species to achieve sentience in the galaxy, making them many millions of years old. After eons of evolution and space exploration, these beings had basically evolved to the point where they were no longer flesh and blood.

So really, these monoliths were not so much ships as chariots to carry their uploaded consciousness to the stars. Composed of unknown material and impenetrable to everything from scanners to nuclear detonators, they were a mystery to humanity of the 21st century. It also didn’t help that the only man get within spitting distance of an operational one disappeared, his last words being “My God, it’s full of stars!”

GTF Ulysses:
gtf_UlyssesThis ship, taken once again from the Freespace gaming universe, was one of the fastest and most maneuverable ships in the known universe. A collaborative effort between Terran and Vasudan scientists, it possessed the best design features and technologies they could muster. The Ulysses was designed for service in the Great War, but because of its assets, it saw service with GTVA forces long after the Lucifer was destroyed and the last of the Shivans routed.

In terms of armaments, it was lightly armed compared to other fighters, with four gun mounts, but only two ordinance bays. In the end, its greatest assets were its speed and maneuverability which made it highly effective against faster Shivan ships. In a dog fight, few things could catch it, or get around fast enough to hit it!

Inhibitor Square:
black_cube_world-1024x768These are the mysterious, dark and malevolent machines from the Revelation Space universe. Also known as “The Wolves”, they are a semi-sentient race of machinery that is designed to locate sentient star-faring cultures and exterminate them. However, the Inhibitors didn’t do this using lasers or photon weapons.

Much like the Firstborn from Clarke’s Space Odyssey series, they relied on a series of natural processes. The only real difference was they did it for destruction purposes. For example, when they became alerted to the presence of humanity on Resurgam, they chose to disassemble the planet’s gas giant bit by bit in order to create a massive trumpet like device in space. This was basically a gravitational weapon which they began using to shake the system’s sun to pieces.

megathronAnother Eve warship, the Megathron is the battleship of choice for the Gallente faction. It accelerates quickly, has a high armor capacity, and is very versatile due to its seven turret slots and two launcher hardpoints. This last feature is rare in Gallente ships, which tend to focus on energy weapons.

Because of its many weapons slots, the Megathron can be adapted to long range fire, known as the “Sniperthron”. This vessel is capable of engaging enemies at a distance of 150 km, but leaves it vulnerable to close range attacks and strips of the ability to heal. Another common build is the “Blasterthron” where the weapons of choice or short-range blasters, making it one of the toughest battleships around.

NTF Iceni:
ntf_iceniOnce more onto the Freespace franchise, dear friends. Here we have the one-of-kind prototype vessel known as the Iceni, the brainchild of the Neo-Terran Federation’s commander, Admiral Aken Bosch. Designed to be a command ship and mobile research platform, the Iceni was also a highly capable attack vessel, boasting mutiple turrets, beam mounts and missile batteries.

As part of project ETAK, the Iceni was the only vessel capable of communicating with the Shivans. After being mistaken for a command facility in an asteroid belt, Bosch was forced to deploy this ship prematurely. After shedding it’s housing asteroid, it set course for Gamma Draconis, where it used an Ancient jump gate to flee into unknown space. After making contact with the Shivans, the ship was boarded and most of the crew killed. Once the survivors were rescued, the ship engaged its self-destruct sequence and was lost.

In addition to being faster and more maneuverable than most ships its size, the Iceni also packed as much firepower as a Deimos-class frigate. These included 3 large beam emitters, 7 heavy turrets, 9 defenses turrets, 2 flak batteries, and 4 defensive missile batters. As such, it was capable of standing toe-to-toe with any comparable ship in the Terran or Vasudan armadas, and outrunning anything larger.

prometheus_shipJust to be clear, I haven’t seen the movie… yet! I wanted to, but I dragged into seeing another film last night which also rocked (see below)! Luckily, I have seen enough trailers and promotional videos to know a few things about the eponymously named vessel. So here she is, just one day (finger crossed) before I see her on the silver screen! As an exploration vessel, the USCSS Prometheus was a designed for deep-space expeditions to alien worlds.

As a full-service space taxi, it was designed for both atmospheric and space flight and could therefore forgo the need for landing pods and shuttles. This was all made possible thanks to its reinforced hull, four multi-vector thrusters that allowed for verticle take off and landing, and an observation deck that allowed the crew a panoramic view of space and whatever landscapes they were surveying. During takeoff and atmospheric entry, these are enclosed by a series of protective shields.

Prometheus_ship_rearOn top of all that, it was packed with amenities for its crew. These included a large bay for heavy equipment and expedition vehicles, a full-service mess hall, a medical bay, recreational facilities, a built-in basketball court, long-range communications systems, crew quarters, cryogenic chambers, and holographic display windows. And of course, the ship’s own laboratory which served as its main research center. No doubt about it, ships like this, courtesy of the Weyland Corporation, ensured that crews could travel in style and comfort before being horribly killed by extra-terrestrials!

Special Mention: The Avenger Helicarrier!
Yes, I managed to get out last night to the movie theater. But instead of catching Prometheus as I originally hoped, I was coaxed into seeing the Avengers instead. It-was-awesome! Tons of cool action, a respectable, multi-layered plot, and lots and lots of cool shit! Kudos to Joss Whedon, I think he just became my hero!

And one of the things I liked best about this movie was S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own big-ass helicarrier! When they hinted that it was both a carrier and a sub, I was like “Whoaaaa! Like something out of Robotech!” But then, out came those massive turbofans and it took off! I just sat and stared for several, sustained minutes. My wife laughed at me. At that point, I said, “Okay, maybe you were right to want to see this.”

Anyhoo, much like something out of Robotech, this carrier was a massive machine that came in two modes. In its standard mode, it was your basic aircraft carrier similar in appearance to a Nimitz-class carrier. In its other mode, it is a freaking hovercraft, where four massive turbofans and two sets of jet engine clusters allow it to fly! It also has a comprehensive camouflage system where a series of reflector panels obscure it from sight, similar to adaptive camouflage.

And of course, as an aircraft carrier, it also has the usual amenities, which include several squadrons of F-22 and F-35 fighters and quinjets. And though armament didn’t come up in the movie, we can also assume that it has a full compliment of Phalanx point-defense cannons and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. But knowing S.H.I.E.L.D., I’m sure the list doesn’t end there. Most likely, they also got some cool stuff like an EMP, some rail guns, or laser devices in there too!

The Revelation Space Universe

Lighthuggers, Inhibitors, Ultras, Hyperpigs, Conjoiners Drives, Demarchists, Chasm City… Few science fiction authors have come up with as many weird and intriguing concepts as Alastair Reynolds. The author of the Revelation Space series, Pushing Ice, Blue Remembered Earth, Century Rain, House of Suns, Terminal World, and a slew of short stories and articles, Reynolds is not only a hard science fiction author but an actual scientist.

Yes, from 1991 to 2004, Reynolds worked as an astronomer for the European Space Research and Technology Center, which is part of the European Space Agency, in Noordwijk, Holland. So when it comes to matters of science and space – be it exploration, travel, or the physics thereof – this guy really knows what he’s talking about.

To start my review of his work off right, I’d like to cover his first full-length novel. Known as Revelation Space, this story became the basis for the universe of the same name and the setting of most of his books. It also advanced a lot of ideas and concepts which would inspire yours truly 😉

Revelation Space (2000):
The story opens with three separate but interrelated strands, though their connection is initially unclear. The first takes place on a planet known as Resurgam in 2551, where an archaeologist named Dr. Dan Sylveste is leading an expedition to uncover the remains of the Amarantin. This alien species, which were a winged-humoid race, existed for over 900,000 years on the planet before some cataclysmic event wiped them out.

The most recent discovery of the excavation team proves that the Amarantin were far more technologically developed than previously thought. Retiring to his den, Dan begins to commune with the beta-level simulation of his deceased father, Calvin Sylveste. Often, he consults his father, who died on Yellowstone, for advice in matters scientific and political. However, Dan soon learns that coup has taken place due to his obsession with uncovering the Amarantin, and a party shows up at the site to arrest him.

Cut to 2540 aboard the Nostalgia for Infinity, a “Lighthugger” vessel that is the mainstay of the universe in this time (the name refers to the fact that it can fly to within an inch of the speed of light.) Here,Triumvir Ilia Volyova is awake while the other crew members are in reefersleep (cryogenic suspension). They are en route to the Epsilon Eridani system and the planet of Yellowstone to find Dan Sylveste, not knowing that he departed for Resurgam some 15 years previously.

Its crew of Ultras (modified spacers) is desperate to find Sylveste since their Captain is a victim of the Melding Plague – a nanovirus that has infected all of Yellowstone. Basically, they are seeking his services yet again since his last treatment did not seem to take. Ilia also plans to pick up a new gunner since their last one apparently went insane and had to be spaced, the only clue he left behind was the name “Sun Stealer”, which he wrote on a wall in his own blood.

Last, the scene switches to 2524 and the surface of Yellowstone, where professional assassin Ana Khouri is hired by a wealthy recluse known as The Mademoiselle. Apparently, she wants Dan Sylveste found and killed, and she knows the Nostalgia for Infinity will go to the ends of the universe to find him. As such, she orders Khouri to go into stasis and meet up with the crew 20 years later when they arrive in orbit.

Meanwhile, we learn a few things of importance. For one, the Nostalgia appears to have been infected by virus other than the one that’s got their Captain in cryo-sleep. This virus appears to be what drove the last gunner insane and is threatening to kill Ilia now. During a training exercise where they test their landing suits, another glitch results in the death of another crewman, leaving only the Triumvirs – Ilia, Hegazi, Sajake – and the Captain.

We also learn that the cargo hold of the ship is holding a large supply of Cache Weapons, what are apparently referred to as Hell-class, all of which appear to be a bunch of Doomsday devices. Ilia secured these weapons from sources unknown, but in time it is suggested that they are of Conjoiner manufacture – the same advanced faction that built the Nostalgia’s engines (aka. Conjoiner Drives).

Artist concept of Ana Khouri

And finally, we learn why Sylveste is on Resurgam and why the Mademoiselle wants him dead. As it turns out, the Sylveste family maintained a research institute on Yellowstone dedicated to the study of alien civilizations. Many extinct cultures were discovered by humanity as it spread into space, no living ones aside from two exceptions. The first were the Pattern Jugglers, a planet-wide sentient species that comprised massive kelp nets that seemed to preserve the neural patterns of anyone who walked into them. The second were known as the Shrouders, aliens that were presumed to exist within a bunch of anomalous space-time bubbles.

Sylveste became interested in these when a colleague of his became the first to survive contact with a “Shroud” but was left insane. After years of doing nothing but scrawl images on the floor, he spoke and told Sylveste that he actually made contact with an alien intelligence inside the Shroud. This area of space-time, he said, was known as “Revelation Space”. He told him further that they held information about a great mystery that would explain the deaths of all alien civilizations in the quadrant, and that he had to go to the Jugglers to get it. As preservers of memories, they held the secrets of many dead alien worlds in their massive neural nets.

Having completed all this, Sylveste finally flew into the Shroud and survived. However, his partner in the expedition, a female researcher, was lost and presumed dead. In truth, she survived, but just barely, and returned to Yellowstone where she became a recluse known as… wait for it… the Mademoiselle! Hence why she wants Sylveste dead, because she blames him for her accident and the fact that she is now forced to live in a containment apparatus.

Ah but there’s more! After he made contact with “Revelation Space”, Sylveste was told to go to Resurgam where he would find his answers. He did not know why, but it seemed the Amarantin were the final piece of the puzzle. Before that happened though, he was brought aboard the Nostalgia to help the Captain for the first time. And years later, his work would be interrupted when the colony rose up against him.

Hints are also given as to what is going on vis a vis the extinction and the virus aboard the Nostalgia. Essentially, eons and eons ago, the first intelligent races of the Galaxy met up and began a prolonged conflict known as the Dawn War. After millions of years of fighting, the remaining civilizations, exhausted and cynical about sentient life, combined their intelligences with machinery to create a series of specialized weapons. Collectively, they came to be known as the Inhibitors, a race of machine-like intelligences that sought out sentient life and exterminated it once it achieved a high level of technical development.

Sun Stealer by bartolomeusz

Meanwhile, on Resurgam, Sylveste is given a reprieve from house arrest to see the latest results of the excavation, which have proceeded in his absence. It seems that the crews turned up a massive underground city containing many ruins, and hints as to what happened. Featured over and over are an Amarantin idol which is reaching towards the sun. Hints are also given that Resurgam’s moon, Cerberus, was also particularly significant to the Amarantin people. After learning of all this, Sylveste proposes marriage to his new sweatheart and they prepare to have their marriage in the city ruins.

By 2566, Khouri is brought aboard as the ships new gunner and they arrive at Resurgam. However, before they make orbit, a nearly catastrophic situation occurs when one of the ship’s doomsday weapons suddenly becomes active and has to be released. It detonates off their bow and creates an artificial singularity which very nearly consumes their ship. Having just made it away, Ilia concludes that the virus is stepping up its game!

Once they make orbit, the crew establishes contact and demands Sylveste be turned over. To make their point, they stage a ruse where they pretend to level an outlying settlement, and the colony responds by handing Sylveste over. This they do by attacking him during his wedding and taking him and his wife prisoner. The crew fly down in their special suits to retrieve him and announce that they plan to bring him and his wife aboard. However, Sylveste turns the tables by saying his artificial eyes contain a pinhead antimatter device that will destroy their ship. He lists new terms, which include letting his wife go and taking him to Resurgam’s moon of Cerberus. In exchange, he promises to help their Captain any way he can.

As Sylveste and the crew of the Nostalgia for Infinity approach Cerberus, Sylveste realizes the massive celestial body isn’t a planet at all—but rather, a massive space station. They fly inside and begin to be set upon by the devices defenses, but eventually make it down inside. Once in there, Sylveste realizes what it really is. Basically, the moon was built eons ago by the Inhibitors which served as a beacon to alert them of the emergence of a star faring intelligence. Once activated, it would signal the Inhibitors to launch their machines to the system so they could exterminate whichever species found them. Sylveste concludes that this is what happened to the Amarantin.

Aboard the Nostalgia, Ilia also is confronted by the truth when the virus threatens to finally take over the ship. Appearing on the ships main display, an Amarantin who identifies himself as “Sun Stealer” explains their purpose to her. Apparently, the Amarantin are the Shrouders! These bubbles in space time have been their protection against the Inhibitors for hundreds of thousands of years, and their means of drawing out new sentient races to find them and do their bidding. When Sylveste’s colleague passed into them, they realized their time had come, and as such, tried to manipulate him into discovering if the Inhibitors were still alive out there.

Unfortunately, this case of first contact went poorly. Not being able to recognize his neural patterns, the Amarantin nearly drove Sylveste’s friend completely mad with their message. Luckily for them, he was able to make sense of it in time and delivered it to Sylveste, who then came back to the Shroud where they were able to imprint a series of clues in his mind as well as a virus that would monitor him. These, they hoped would eventually lead him back to their homeworld and the moon of Cerebrus.  Their intent all along was to have someone else make contact with the Inhibitor machine, thus they could see if it was safe to emerge from hiding. If so, they planned to retake their homeworld. If not, it would be a different race who was exterminated and they would wait until the next came along.

However, that plan changed when Sylveste came aboard the Nostalgia for the first time and unknowingly planted the virus in the ship’s hardware. Hence why the gunner went mad and why its been threatening to take over the ship. Cut off from Sylveste, it was beginning to go mad. However, once he was aboard, it saw an opportunity to complete its mission. Having taken the helm, Sun Stealer now kept the ship in orbit around the moon and began reporting everything it saw back to the Amarantin Shroud.

Down on the station, Sylveste realizes that the beacon has become active and that he has been played. Rather than allow the Inhibitors to emerge, he detonates the bombs in his eyes to destroy the facility. Back on the ship, Ilia decides to unleash the Melding Plague that’s been consuming their Captain and let  Sun Stealer do battle with it. Sun Stealer loses and the ship begins transforming into a gothic nightmarish version of itself. But at least they’ve restored control of it to themselves. The story ends with the crew reuniting and setting course for Resurgam again.

Good Points and Bad:
Well, I don’t know if you could tell from my description, but the plot of this book was pretty damn complicated and mighty layered. And personally, I thought that was a good thing! It is not unusual for an author to have distinct points of view in a story that seem unrelated but inevitably come together, but Reynolds was really working overtime with this one. How and where the plots overlapped could produce headaches due to the sheer effort of keeping track of it all, but I for one felt it worked pretty well.

In addition, the inventions and futuristic concepts were a real mind-blower for me at the time. In fact, I specifically picked up this book in order to research modern sci-fi and get a dose of the latest hard science, and that’s exactly what I got. Beta-level simulations, Alpha constructs, nanotechnology, servitors, Lighthuggers, inertia, controlled singularities, and the like. It all called to mind numerous other classic sci-fi franchises, many of which Reynolds himself acknowledged a debt to.

For example, his Inhibitors sounded very much like the Firstborn of the Space Odyssey series. Here and there, you had aliens who were so advanced that they could download their consciousness into machinery that would preserve them for eternity, making for effective space travel in a universe that didn’t permit FTL. Reefersleep also called to mind cryogenic pods from Alien and other franchises. Cybernetic implants, augmentation and nanobots are all concepts one can find elsewhere too. Still, the way Reynolds combined these things together was quite masterful, and very much in keeping with the tradition of space opera.

And finally, I found the story downright intriguing. The concept of an ancient race that prevents the rise of space-faring sentient life because it knows from experience that such life will likely engage in prolonged war with other sentients seemed quite believable. One need only look at the process of human history to know that conflict is a defining feature, and that peace on a grand scale only seems to follow in the wake of terrible, exhausting wars. Consider Europe after two world wars, Japan after the Shogunate wars, or China after its Warring States period (and even after that!) Like it or not, peace and consensus are very often the result of war, war, and more war.

Okay, now for the weak stuff. As I said already, the plot can be convoluted. For the most part, this works in the story’s favor. However, something which comes up in other Reynold’s works as well, is his tendency to throw in too many plot twists, especially towards the end. Already we have a very complicated and layered story which really didn’t need any more curve balls, but some are thrown even as the other plot threads are culminating. In this story, the unnecessary twists involve last-minute revelations.

In Sylveste’s case, this happens just before he is captured by his own people and he takes the opportunity to unburden himself to his wife. He tells her that his father once had an alpha-level simulation of himself, as opposed to the beta that he frequently talks to. He gave this alpha to the Pattern Jugglers in exchange for the info they gave him. It is also revealed that Dan Sylveste is in fact a clone of his father. Hence his vanity and obsessive nature, they were retained from a father who wanted a duplicate of himself.

Last, there’s the revelation that the Captain of Nostalgia – John Brannigan – went into the Jugglers sea himself and used them to imprint his mind on Sajaki, one of the Triumvirs. His reasons had to do with the fact that he knew he needed to go into reefersleep until they found a cure for the Melding Plague. Unable to stand the idea of being out of it for so long, he decided to get the Jugglers to erase Sajaki’s mind and replace it with a copy of his own, that way he could be aware of everything that was going on while he was under. This twist seemed quite unnecessary too, as it really didn’t advance the plot any, just added another complication.

But overall, I was very pleased with this book and was sure to pick up its sequel. In fact, Revelation Space was the second Reynold’s book I had read at this point (the first was Century Rain) and I consider his writing to be a highly educational experience. In fact, much of his ideas and hard scientific basis served to inspire my own writing, particularly when it came to Source. So when it comes to authors I owe a debt to, he’s right up there! Stay tuned for more reviews of Reynolds and the Revelation Space Universe!