Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Why of Terraformed Worlds

The idea of terraforming nearby planets (or more distant ones) is well established in modern culture. Moreso than I knew. The linked Wikipedia article on "Terraforming in Popular Culture" lists science fiction, movies, and video games that make reference to the idea. Some of the most important pioneering stories I was familiar with, including Robert Heinlein's Farmer in the Sky and Isaac Asimov's The Martian Way (both of which I'd read). I had also heard about Kim Stanley Robinson's Martian Trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars). But I didn't know that there are at least 15 science fiction stories that feature terraforming, as well as at least 20 TV and movie references to it and over 30 video games in which terraforming is either a goal or a plot element.

Those used to easy travel to other worlds in a lot of popular science fiction (which are often really a part of the sub-genre "Space Opera"), such as in both Star Wars and Star Trek, may not see why human beings would bother to take the effort to make other planets in our Solar System inhabitable. Why? Why not just stick with good old Planet Earth? Or if we are to leave Earth, why not for other worlds around other stars that are virtually the same as Earth already?

The answer lies in the fact that there is no known way to do warp drive, hyper drive, jump to light speed, make wormholes, or take a jaunt in the TARDIS. If we are going to talk about what human beings are really going to do based on science we understand and therefore what we really are going to accomplish, star travel would seem to be limited to flying the way we know how to fly. Which means by traveling fast as we possibly can in normal space.

"As fast as we possibly can" is actually a lot harder to attain than you might think, as I discussed in a post on "Nanite Space Weapons" from several years back. Suffice it to say takes roughly as much antimatter in tonnage as the weight of a spacecraft to get up near to light speed--which is still awfully slow for any voyages beyond the closest of stars. And please note that flying anywhere near the speed of light would be deadly to human life as I noted in my post on "Interstellar Fortresses and Starship Combat." Doing more than that may become possible based on yet-future discoveries. But the distances involved and forces required are truly mind-boggling.

So--realistic science fiction travel to the stars would have say it would take generations to get there. It's true that sci fi writers don't have to stick to realism. But our travel situation in the Solar System is quite different from interstellar travel. Relatively well-understood things like fusion-reactor driven spaceships or anti-matter driven ships or even good fission drives (and more) would effectively open up the Solar System to regular and easy travel, especially for everything inside, say, the orbit of Jupiter. Or even as far out as Saturn. (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto and beyond likely will always be long hauls...)

So since travel to Mercury, Venus, the moon, Mars, the asteroids, and Jupiter's moons is not unrealistic at all, it becomes pretty clear that transforming all of these places so that human beings could live there constitutes a really good idea. Even though transforming an entire planet or moon to make it Earthlike is likely to take hundreds of years at best.

This focus on terraforming forms the backdrop of the Medieval Mars stories I've been recently working on. Though terraforming would also be in the backdrop for other story ideas I've had (such as the Kaiser's Interplanetary Cold War). (The world map of my fictional terraformed Medieval Mars is below:)


Terraforming in short makes sense. Therefore science fiction can't really afford to ignore it. Science fiction writers who read this post should be thinking about it. :)

For my next post, I'll look at the HOW of terraforming. How is it an uninhabited world could be made livable? Until then...

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Monday, July 20, 2015

Asteroid Mining Wars

As per the linked Forbes article concerning an asteroid with a platinum core that space entrepreneurs would love to mine (how it is known the asteroid has a platinum core is unmentioned in the article, but another source says it's from spectrometer readings), there are a number of asteroids that fly relatively near the Planet Earth which have an estimated value far above what it would cost to travel into space to capture them and bring them back to Earth. The object just referenced, Asteroid 2011 UW158, has an estimated value between $300 billion and $5.6 trillion dollars. That would be 5600000000000 US dollars at estimated most.  

Planet Earth has limited amounts of certain rare metals like platinum. Though of course gaining a massive new supply of platinum from outer space would tend to flood the platinum market and reduce the overall selling price of this precious metal. This flooding effect would also be true from diamonds or other items obtained from outer space, at least to a degree. Still, it is nevertheless true that there is real treasure to be gained in outer space and that some of it passes close enough to Earth that recovering it would be of a similar technical difficulty to sending a man to the moon.

In other words, the technology required to mine near-Earth asteroids isn't anything new or exotic; it lies firmly with the realm of things that either have already been accomplished or are well-understood. And it could be hugely profitable.

And it happens to be the case that whenever an activity is hugely profitable, it's something human beings will fight over. Perhaps the fight would take the form of the corporate competition struggle, with Earth-based companies fiercely trying (in a metaphorical sense) to outfox one another to be the first to capture asteroids like these and bring them home.

Perhaps, if we imagine Earth having a somewhat different history than it has had (or a somewhat unexpected future) asteroid minding would be something space-exploring nations would fight over. Imagine the Soviet Union had not collapsed and NASA had sill received Apollo era funding. It's easy enough to see these two space powers competing over very valuable near-Earth asteroids. Under some circumstances, such competition could degenerate into a shooting war.

Perhaps the most interesting take on stories set in stiff competition for the resources represented by these asteroids would start with having corporations lead the way. But then adjust the setting so that even though the corporations are guided by international law in their behavior on Planet Earth, out in outer space, on asteroids in which it would be possible to jam outbound communications, where no one on Earth can see what is really going on, corporate methodology would rely on actual fighting, shooting competitors on sight or sabotaging them in dangerous ways, companies fiercely trying (in the non-metaphorical sense) to outdo one another in order to capture these asteroids. While all of them would try to keep the fighting a secret the inhabitants of the Earth would know nothing about...

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Story Combat Realism 9: Battlefield Injury, Dying, Death, and Healing


Fictional portrayals of how people die in speculative fiction are often unrealistic. This topic has the potential encompass an entire book of its own, but this blog aim has the aim of correcting major errors and re-orienting the speculative fiction writer to how death and injury on the battlefield should look.

Let's start with epic fantasy and work our way to futuristic science fiction. Epic fantasy, of course, relates to real-world human ancient and medieval warfare, which provides the insights this post discusses.

Epic Fantasy Battle Observations

1. The single blow/single shot rarely kills: You've seen it in the LOTR movies--Legolas fires into an orc, who is blown back by the force of impact of an arrow. And never moves again. Or an orc is stabbed in the chest (right in the middle, no less) and may make a final shriek, but falls down after that, dead, never to move again. I find blows in the middle of enemy armor, without a magically sharp sword or something to explain how useless the armor is, especially annoying. But let's just focus on the wound. Most penetrating wounds to the chest will probably hit a lung, since the lungs fill most of the chest cavity. Will that prove to be fatal? In ancient times it almost always was--but never immediately. Also note that an arrow imparts far less kinetic energy than a bullet does. Arrows would not blow a person back like a shotgun blast--arrows are designed to slice through flesh anyway, not force a hole through it. A ballista would put out enough force to provide that kind of blowback power. But not a regular bow.

The orcs Legolas shoots should slow down but not stop. If they get rocked back and fall (or fall forward in pain) they should get up. For an ordinary chest shot.

2. The headshot exception to #1: True enough, a decapitating blow is an instant kill. So is a head-cleaving ax blow. Or an arrow in the eye. But UNLESS you are Legolas, archers find it hard to deliver a killing blow to the head. It's small and continually moving and usually protected by a helmet. It's easy enough to miss and hit the cheekbone and leave someone seriously maimed but still alive. Also, not deliberately being gruesome, but blows intended to wholly or partially cleave heads have missed often enough in real combat, leaving the recipient more likely than not certain to die, but not right away, and perhaps still able to fight. And while a powerful, sharp sword can perform an instant decapitation, swinging such blows does not always land right due to armor, an enemy ducking, etc. I remember reading one particularly unpleasant historic account in which a blow intended to decapitate only cut the major tendons on one side of horseman's neck. He galloped off, still alive, but not able to keep his head up, it dangling down like a tetherball (this happened in a battle between British forces and Afghans). The man eventually died of his wounds, but much later...there are reasons why aiming for the body of an enemy made real sense in ancient and medieval warfare, just as why it makes sense to aim a firearm there today. The target is easier to hit. Characters that have unerring aim like Legolas should put every arrow they fire through an eye. Or through the base of the skull against an enemy with the back turned, which would not be an instant kill, but instant paralysis. But characters who aren’t as good a Legolas will aim for the body. Which means no instant death for those they hit.

3. The top 3 ancient/medieval battlefield killers: The three things that would cause someone to die in the short term (not always immediately) on the battlefield in the sort of way you'd see in epic fantasy, listed in the speed in which they cause death, would be:
          a. Head injuries, discussed above.
          b. A penetrating wound to the heart. Much easier to land on an opponent without armor, this wound would usually incapacitate immediately and would cause loss of consciousness in seconds. However, there are accounts from ancient times of warriors, particularly in a battle frenzy, who would continue to fight for a minute or so after having the heart pierced through with an arrow or a sword or spear thrust.
          c. Bleeding to death. While this is the third on this list I've made, it was by far the most common cause of someone dying on the battlefield. There are so many arteries in the body core that a single arrow blow could easily nick one. Or a single penetrating sword stab could cut one as well. In fact, it was pretty likely a well-executed sword stab would hit at least one artery. But bleeding to death depended on the rate of the bleed, from the size of the vessel(s) cut, from whether they were naturally under pressure or not. The femoral artery that supplies the leg can cause death in perhaps three minutes (and unconsciousness before that). Other wounds to the gut or lung might cause someone to bleed to death--but only after several hours, or in a few cases, after longer still.

4. Mortal wounds: On ancient and medieval battlefields, it was extremely common for a person to receive a wound that would eventually kill, but may not even seriously incapacitate in the short term. As a generality, penetrating wounds into the body cavity of a human being were always fatal. There were exceptions, but those people who managed not to bleed to death usually got seriously infected and died over a period of days after the battle was over. In fact, for many battles, more people died after the battle was over than during the battle itself.

It may be counter-intuitive, but plenty of people survived traumatic amputations or partial amputations of limbs. Applying a tourniquet or tightly-tied cloth to slow bleeding was knowledge widely held in times past and the risk of infection to a limb was far lower than infection to the main body cavity. Though of course surviving a lost limb required at least a primitive form of medical treatment. Leading to my next point:

5. Don't forget to include healers: From guys who know how to bind wounds in tight cloth to apply pressure and to cauterize slow bleeders, to highly skilled ancient students of the body like the Greeks and Chinese who knew how to clamp arteries and provide antibiotic and pain-killing herbs, to major magicians who could regenerate wounds, healers would be important on any battlefield. Tolkien, the inspiration for a great deal of epic fantasy, rather neglected the issue of healing battlefield wounds, except in relation to magic. Yes, Frodo gets healed from one particular injury, one magically-related. But most of the rest of the issue of injuries is ignored--yes, Tolkien was extremely successful as a writer of epic battles anyway, but I recommend you think and write about how injured soldiers on the battlefield will be treated in the both the short and long term.

Shifting from the world of fantasy to the world of science fiction, let me say that as medical technology advances in a story world, more and more injuries are survivable. Medics in the 21st century carry tourniquets that are so easy to apply they can be put on with one hand. Chitosan will stop a major arterial bleeder within the body. Antibiotics have defeated all but the most pernicious infections. Even serious head wounds can often be treated, if the wounded party can get to medical attention on time. But at the same time, weapons become increasingly lethal over time. Hence why I’m going to shift to talking about weapons a bit.

Futuristic Science Fiction Battlefield Observations

1. Future weapons should show increased lethality: This should be super obvious, but a number of famous science fiction stories in film have featured weapons that were not particularly effective. The blaster in Star Wars fires about as fast as a crossbow bolt--the light saber is more lethal than a cavalry saber, but not immensely so. A modern machine gun would do more damage than many fictional rayguns. Remember, this post is about realism and while certain stories may sell just fine with such fictions, I'm about to list realistic ways to increase the lethality of future weapons in stories:
          a. Ionizing radiation. It's everywhere but is infrequently featured in science fiction stories. It shouldn't be--an obvious tactic in a future battlefield would be to poison an area with high doses of ionizing radiation. Such areas would act like minefields. They would be deadly for everyone, but would be used to block areas and restrict enemy movement. Enemies with proper sensors would avoid radiation areas. Enemies without them would cross into the radiation zone, not seeing, tasting, or smelling anything. Until they began to throw up, their skin burning, any hair falling out. Death would by no means be instantaneous, but it would be certain.
          b. Real beam weapons. Real lasers travel at the speed of light--which means when you turn them on, any target in the range of a dismounted soldier would be instantly hit. Yes, these weapons use a great deal of power--but compacted power sources is a feature of science fiction. Note that a laser does not have to be visible to the naked eye at all--it can be, say, in the ultraviolet range and cut flesh. Or in the microwave range and instantly cook flesh.
          c. Mini/nano/tracking weapons. A host of flying robots, perhaps big enough to be seen with the naked eye, perhaps not, which would obey its owner but no one else is an obvious futuristic weapon. Individual homing missiles are also obvious--why use bullets that have to be aimed when every shot of a rifle could be a heat-seeking missile? (or other type of target seeker)
          d. Antimatter blasts. Not just on the starship level, but an individual trooper that could pull the trigger on a pistol that would release an explosion that's the equivalent to a 500 pound bomb is entirely realistic in the context of futuristic science fiction warfare.
          e. Destructive teleportation beams. Look, I'm not sure I believe in teleportation beams like the transporter in Star Trek, but IF you had such a thing, using them in warfare would be routine. It would allow placing bombs without an enemy seeing them until too late. It would allow stripping out key body parts (say hearts) or selectively removing a key element (say taking all the iron from the blood and leaving the rest of the body).
          f. Gravity beams: If gravity could be manipulated in the future, then it could become a weapon, rather like the teleportation beam, ripping hearts out of enemy chests instead of beaming them out...
          g. Increased use of robots, drones, and androids. To get living creatures out of the kill zone in the first place.
          h. Other: I created this category just to say my list above is not exhaustive and isn't intended to be. Think about the technology of your futuristic story world. If there is any way to use a principle of the science of your world as a weapon, someone will have thought how to do it. If people could make wormholes reliably, they'd use them to suck away the enemy headquarters. Etc.

2. Increased lethality should be balanced out as much as possible by defenses. Armies respond to more lethal weapons by trying to protect themselves better. If ionizing radiation can be shielded (realistically no one knows how to do that with a force field--lead and distance are the best things we know), then it will be less used. Or used only against enemies who can't protect themselves from it. Increased lethality will inspire increased mobility. And increased communications. Soldiers in contact with one another by advanced communications do not need to be in visual contact. And if an enemy weapon has a wide path of destruction, it would be natural to put soldiers as far apart as possible. I mean tens of kilometers or miles apart for ground troops. Starships would engage each other from as far away as they realistically could. Which brings up my next point:

3. Starships forces need to be accounted for: If missiles track enemy ships and beam weapons are more lethal, starships should be so far away from each other as to never be in naked eyeshot, assuming they can't make effective shields (which again, no one knows how to make even in theory). Ramming another vessel would be a ridiculous idea because the enemy would see you coming from so far off it would be easy to vector away from such an attack. Since the speed of light is a limitation, starships/space warcraft as far apart as they could afford to be would be partially guessing where their enemy is, because the distance would mean any sensory information would be from minutes or even hours in the past. A great part of the challenge would be to find the enemy craft, rather like submarine warfare. But increased lethality would mean a single hit with an antimatter bomb would tend to kill the entire crew of an enemy craft. Or a large proportion of them. Starship combat where only two or three people are killed is not very realistic, given the forces involved, even with improvements in medical technology. A fail in inertial compensation that rocks people in their chairs in Star Trek would splatter them against the wall in more realistic science fiction.

4. Expand the capacities of the healing arts. Limb regeneration, memory restoration, brain reconstruction, paralysis correction, restoration of senses (Geordi LaForge is not a realistic character), perhaps even what would seem to us to be a form of resurrection, along with various enhancements of natural human abilities--these things should be all standard in futuristic science fiction. Medical science would try as hard as it could to counterbalance the increased lethality of weapons. Someone broken into a pile of mush could be reconstituted, if a medical professional could get to him or her on time.

In summary, the most important factor to keep in mind in dealing with weapons damage and healing is to remember you are not talking about analogues to modern times on Planet Earth. Where the story setting is radically different from our conditions, the issue of wounds and what is survivable should be different, too.


This post has been a broad overview of the topic that could be covered in more detail. Any questions or comments for further discussion are more than welcome. :)

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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Story Combat Realism 8: Universal Human Fears and Reactions in Combat

This blog post stands alone, but is also designed to add depth to other posts in this Combat Realism series, starting from the very first one, which discusses the human surrender reflex.

I've heard it reported that human beings only have one natural, instinctive fear that all of us share without learning it. That would be the fear of very loud noises, such as thunder or explosions.

That isn't quite true, though. Human beings instinctively feel a sense of intimidation by someone who much taller than they are. And while infants at times seem to show no fear of falling, the terror of falling from heights is very common in adult human beings, whether they've ever had a bad fall or not. As is the fear of drowning. An adult who has never been taught to swim feels instinctive terror of being submersed in water, in almost every case.

So there are fears other than loud noises that are for all practical purposes universal, if not fully so 100%. Especially significant to the discussion of combat is, most human beings have a strong, natural aversion to killing another human. In addition, most members of our species find the thought of another human trying to kill them especially terrifying.

Killing another human being is hardest when its face-to-face and when it involves stabbing into another person's body. The first part of this involves the fact we humans read one another's emotions primarily through facial cues. For almost all people, witnessing another human suffer causes at least a weak empathetic response. Like laughter or coughing becoming contagious, the normal human psyche feels a reflection of another human being's suffering.

If people are too far away for their faces to be seen, as in a combatant firing artillery or dropping bombs, killing bears a lesser psychological effect--unless the recipients of bombing or shelling are seen up close later. Hard close combat causes psychological injury to human beings--submarine crews or bomber squadrons in WWII, who were in fact in as much or more danger as infantrymen, usually were less traumatized by their experiences. Note that while snipers fire from far off, their use of optics brings their targets pretty close.

Note also how this factor relates to the "chase" instinct mentioned in part one of this series. When an enemy turns and runs away, it is easier to kill them by stabbing them in the back than it is to stab them while facing them. This suggests the old cultural prohibition against shooting a man in the back being an act of cowardice was not only there because it is safer to shoot someone who can't see you. It is also psychologically easier to shoot someone without looking him in the eye--which means for some people, they'd be more likely to pull the trigger at people with their backs turned. An act our ancestors judged to be villainous.

The "stabbing into another body" part from above perhaps is a particular issue because it strikes people instinctively as being interlinked with sexual intimacy and therefore especially wrong (and for certain criminally disturbed minds, especially exciting). It happens to be the case that stabbing into the body is a very effective way to kill people. Yet human beings have often gravitated towards weapons that swing in order to slice or smash as killing weapons. It's worth considering that one of the reasons why a person might use a sword to slash or hack has nothing to do with weapon effectiveness, but rather with the psychological factor of avoiding putting a penetrative wound in another person, up close and personal.

Related to the revulsion against stabbing into other human beings is the terror the thought of having someone else do that to us inspires. Humans are certainly afraid of being bombed or shelled, largely because the terrible noises the explosions make, but we'll take our lives into our hands in automobiles in reckless ways without much fear at all. It's different when someone is deliberately trying to kill you. And while the idea that another human would drop a bomb on you or target you with a sniper rifle certainly can inspire fear, I'd wager most people are more afraid of an enemy who will stab them to death with a knife up close.

So let's put all these factors mentioned into play in a medieval battlefield scenario. A high tower or wall is not only an effective defense because gravity helps you fire down on an enemy from up high--it is terrifying to climb a high wall for most human beings because of the fear of falling. And the castle moat may not in fact be so deep that a man at arms in armor couldn't wade through it. But he's unlikely to want to try, for fear of drowning. The archer on the castle wall has an easier job than the infantryman on the battle line, not just because he is in less relative danger, but because he can shoot enemies beyond the distance where he can see their faces. Infantry in the field break and run from charging cavalry lancers because men on horseback are taller, the horses make a thundering noise. and the thought that "those men coming at us are going to pierce us through with lances." When the infantry turn and run, it is not only easier to stab them in the back from the point of view of it being safer, it becomes more of an anonymous act. A line of musketeers fire back at the cavalry and they break as a group and gallop away, not just because the musket balls can penetrate their armor, but because of the tremendous noise the firing guns make.

Of course not every human being reacts to these situations in the same way. Some people feel very little fear of heights, for example. And the purpose of military training is to make certain actions a matter of rote memory, so they can be performed under any circumstances (other blog posts in this series explore factors that make both killing and facing death easier). But a story writer must account for human fears in battle portrayals. The effects are far-reaching and touch many aspects a person would not immediately notice are dictated by instinctual human fears.

Note this blog post, while explaining human fears and reactions, is addressed to speculative fiction writers. You have the opportunity to play with mythological creatures, with aliens, and demihumans like Elves and Dwarves. Of course the cyborg or robot creature who has no fears at all has been done over and over in science fiction and will always have a place. Yet what I suggest writers should do is give non-humans on your fictional battlefields instinctual fears other than what humans have, with perhaps some overlap or interrelation with human fears. Then consider how differing fears might affect the actions of a fictional army. For example, an alien species might routinely face a predator with an orange body and as a result have an instinctive fear of orange. Once an enemy figured that out, all armor would be routinely colored orange--just as many soldiers in our world once wore tall hats or high plumes to take advantage of the fact that most human beings find someone taller than them intimidating (tall hats disappeared when weapon effectiveness from a distance made their payoff in intimidation not worth how much easier a target a soldier using such a hat became).

The next post in this series will cover physical wounds instead of psychological ones, what really causes death in the real world. And what should cause battlefield deaths in worlds of speculative fiction...


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Saturday, June 20, 2015

Story Combat Realism 7--the Human Organism at the Height of Battle

My most recent blog post on combat realism in stories discussed long-term effects of combat on human beings. This post looks at the physical effects a life or death struggle has on a person . (Information below is derived from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's book, On Combat. Some of the specific physiological effects are summarized in an article on Lt. Col. Grossman's website):

When the human heart rate increases from stress alone (as opposed to exercise), certain predictable effects take place.
Note a trend in this chart. A certain level of elevation of the heart rate, between 115-145 bpm, benefits everything a human being can do, except fine motor skills. (If you need to thread a needle, it's best to be at resting heart rate.) Beyond that heart rate, human performance generally deteriorates, except for gross motor skills and movement, which are best over 160. The heart rate that supports best the activities of, say, swinging a sword with a full adrenaline power boost, generally shuts down the higher brain functions that are good at conducting strategy. One of the effects of training is to be able to enable a warrior to act appropriately in combat by rote memory, since higher brain functions tend to shut down.

Another form of training, probably more ancient that Zen Buddhism, teaches a warrior to calm himself or herself, in particular through controlled breathing. Note that an archer needs calmness more than a front-line swordsman. And a bomb-disposal technician needs to be even calmer than an archer. In stories, human characters who are good at fine motor skills under stress (like bomb disposal) should not be sweating, with a pulse throbbing in the neck--the person good at that kind of job will strike others as being unnaturally level-headed, eerily calm, like someone with "ice water in the veins." Being a berzerker works for a swordsman. A berzerker archer--or fighter pilot--is not a realistic character.

The higher heart rate chart only tracks some of the effects combat stress can have on a human being. The following chart is from On Combat, based on a study done on police officers in kill-or-be-killed encounters:

 (Here's that link to the Warrior Science site.)

One of the difficulties concerning this chart is it's hard to match it up with the heart rate chart above. It's not as if police officers in a shootout--or soldiers in combat--are wearing a heart monitor. But other studies seem to indicate these perceptual changes occur when the heart beats over 160 per minute.

Another difficulty with the chart is that not everyone experiences the same effects. As the author of this blog post, I should make it clear that my personal high-stress experiences do involve some combat situations (such as a gym rocketed when I was in Iraq, with two people killed and 17 wounded, and I helped with the wounded), but I have never myself been in a shoot-out with an enemy. My primary personal experience with high stress actually stems from being an eye witness to a number of accidents, including a gun accident caused a relative carelessly pulling a rifle trigger and shooting my younger sister in the face (she survived). People who read my descriptions of combat will find characters having strange random thoughts in the midst of stress, or making odd, out-of-place observations. According to the chart above, only 26% of people under circumstances like mine reported "Intrusive Distracting Thoughts." I personally have also experienced diminished sound, tunnel vision, automatic pilot (where you can act but cannot speak), slow motion time, and a degree of dissociation. I write what I know myself, but studying information like in the chart above has helped me understand my own reactions are not necessarily the only ones--and are not necessarily typical.

Some of these perceptual reactions can be very adaptive. For example, slow motion time, caused by the brain increasing its processing rate, gives the ability to react to something happening much more quickly than a person normally could do. Yet often a person experiencing slow motion time is not able to make a good independent decision and will only usually be able to repeat something learned by rote in training. Though Lt. Col. Grossman points out that a person can repeatedly train in high stress situations and learn to think and act more rationally, while still reaping the benefits of greater gross motor ability and perceptual benefits such as slow motion time. This is part of the secret of success of special forces units, according to Lt. Col Grossman. They train in high stress so often, they are very nearly fully functional mentally with heart rates over 160--as opposed to not having an increased heart rate at all. (Though very little change in heart rate is probably what happens for certain highly unusual individuals in combat.)

This topic is too large to fully handle in a single blog post. For more detail on these effects you can follow the links, read the books, and round out your own research on what has been observed to happen to human beings in combat.

Let me part with a few observations as a speculative fiction writer on how all this relates to stories. First, these are natural human reactions. A science fiction story could easily feature designer drugs that let one effect, say slow-motion time, be turned on without the negative side effect of, say, being unable to speak. (Of course these drugs could go horribly wrong somehow.) Clearly a cyborg does not operate by these rules at all and could be completely calm in battle. Which is in fact portrayed often enough in science fiction. 

Second, these are natural human reactions. Lord of the Rings Dwarves might go straight to a high heart rate, getting gross motor benefits, while nonetheless being able to think. Elves may stay icy calm, but still be able to fight. Aliens from other worlds might have high stress reactions quite unlike humans altogether. For example, especially if they were to have some form of natural armor (say on the back), an alien race might have to fight a natural tendency to roll up into a ball, which would not be adaptive if an enemy was shooting bullets.

Overall, combat stress reactions are a reality any fiction writer who portrays combat should be thinking about. And the topic can provide some especially interesting story opportunities for the speculative fiction writer.

Questions? Comments? There's a lot more that could be said on this topic and I'd be happy to address any particular issues in the comments below.

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Saturday, June 13, 2015

A Basic Problem With Jurassic World

By the way, this blog post discusses the movie Jurassic World. It does not commit any major spoilers, but it does give away a few story details.


You might wonder why I started this blog post with a picture of a helicopter. It so happens this particular helicopter is featured in the film as being used by an airborne security squad to go after an escaped genetically-engineered dinosaur.

And it illustrates my problem, indirectly. Don't get me wrong, I liked this movie. At its best it's visually stunning; it has interesting characters, interesting dinosaurs, and a fairly satisfying resolution. I think the very best of part of the movie is found in the beginning, with twenty thousand tourists crowded around to see dinosaur attractions. There are numerous small details in this section of the film that strike me as just right.

The Jurassic Park movies do an excellent job preparing the audience for the fact this level of control cannot be maintained forever. The story doesn't have a Dr. Malcolm equivalent lecturing on chaos and nature and doesn't need one.

The agent by which chaos escapes seems a bit weak--really, someone is going to deliberately try to engineer the most dangerous dinosaur possible? To bring in more guests? It seemed a bit improbable, but was not totally implausible to me.

But what was implausible to me was that such a dinosaur would be bred without the security guys knowing all about it. And being fully ready for it.

More broadly, I fought a major "suspension of disbelief" problem with the security guys in general. They were as a whole, woefully unprepared. Maybe it would not seem so to someone who has never been in security or military, but trust me, people who are responsible for preventing loss of life spend a lot of time thinking about the tools they need to do that. They would also train repeatedly on those tools. They would insist on a higher level of readiness than the security people showed in this film.

And if they didn't insist on it themselves, the board would insist on it. The general public would insist. Heck, the nation of Costa Rica would probably demand to have one of their military units on the Costa Rican island upon which the park of Jurassic World is located. Bear in mind this story is not some kind of alternate universe in which Jurassic Park never existed and people don't know that dinosaurs can kill. No, this is the same story line, only 20 years later. Can people forget about folks getting killed on a Costa Rican island--by dinosaurs? Not very likely in only twenty years. But maybe possible--but also bear in mind the original Jurassic Park II movie featured a T Rex loose in San Diego, killing dozens of people. Are people gonna forget that in twenty years--and be laissez-faire about security preparations? No way. I admit, humans are dumb often enough, but what I saw in this film is out of character even for our species. Once the Titanic sank, people became careful to watch out for icebergs.

The film features a corporate helicopter (photo above), with no dedicated pilot, being pressed into dinosaur-hunting duty. I'm sorry, but it really is true that this is more unbelievable to me than genetic engineering of dinosaurs in the first place. After what happened in the Jurassic Park films, the Costa Ricans would almost certainly have had their own military helicopters on the island. And the security guys would ensure (and the board would insist) on something like at least a pair of Apache attack helicopters on hand, just in case. With a bored set of helicopter crews playing cards all day, just waiting for the chance to pop a dinosaur. In fact, a pair of A10s would make an even better choice than Apaches. Why have any doubt if the dinos escape if you can kill them or not? There's nothing like the 30mm cannon mounted under the A10 to be absolutely sure.

Someone who's seen the film might think that my suggested realistic beefing up of security would ruin the plot, which of course involves a number of human beings finding themselves hopelessly outmatched by dinosaurs in various ways. But not necessarily. The film plays an angle of weapons manufacturers eager to get their hands on dinos--just play that angle even more, so they take control of the security apparatus sooner and more forcefully.

But one helicopter charging off--flown by a high-ranking corporate type, an inexperienced helicopter pilot to boot? It was pretty much nonsense. And this was a scene that had some pretty important consequences to what happened in the movie after that.

Even though the movie does show some reasonably well-prepared security types, they really should have been more so. Especially by having some form of air coverage.

And would somebody really want to breed the nastiest dinosaur anyone could imagine? And then not take any precautions to prevent it from getting out beyond building a wall? Um, I don't think so. The unintended and intended villainy don't quite make sense. A basic understanding of human motivations is lacking.

Too bad. The movie was good, but perhaps could have been great.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Story Combat Realism Part 6--The Aftermath of Combat

The picture I've included is by Tom Lea, an artist who travelled with US Marines in the Pacific during World War II (this particular painting is called "The Two Thousand Yard Stare"). The image captures better than words ever can one of the effects combat has.

I first meant this post to talk about long-term after the fact effects of combat, how it changes the warrior who fights in battle permanently. But I've found the actual information on this topic more elusive than I believed it was. So I'm going to broaden the topic a bit to talk about the effects of combat after the fact in general, not just long-term.

Let's start with the "thousand yard stare." I read one source that suggested that eyes staring unfocused in the distance is adaptive for survival, because by not focusing on any particular thing, the peripheral vision expands, so any potentially dangerous motion is easily detected. I mention this source more to illustrate that many of the actual realities of why human beings do what they do under various circumstances is in fact still at least partially a matter of speculation. And sometimes a whole lot more than "partially" speculative.

Unlike the source I just quoted, I think it's more normal to see the thousand yard stare as a product of information overload to the brain. Normal eye movement, normal inquisitive engagement of the environment ceases, because the brain has seen enough and engaged enough. It may be true a person in that state defaults to a form of vision designed to pick up motion, but the primary reason for such a reaction is sensory and emotional overload.

Such a state of staring is usually temporary, as are all the effects of what is now commonly called a "Combat Stress Reaction." In addition to the stare, troops coming off prolonged hard fighting tend to share the following traits:

The slowing of reaction time
Slowness of thought
Difficulty prioritizing tasks
Difficulty initiating routine tasks           
Preoccupation with minor issues and familiar tasks
Indecision and lack of concentration
Loss of initiative with fatigue
Exhaustion
Headaches
Back pains
Inability to relax
Shaking and tremors
Sweating
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of appetite
Abdominal distress
Frequency of urination           
Urinary incontinence
Heart palpitations
Hyperventilation
Dizziness
Insomnia
Nightmares
Restless sleep
Excessive sleep
Excessive startle
Hypervigilance
Heightened sense of threat           
Anxiety
Irritability
Depression
Substance abuse
Loss of adaptability
Attempted suicides
Disruptive behavior
Mistrust of others
Confusion
Extreme feeling of losing control


Obviously not everyone experiences all of these traits. In fact, many of these reactions are opposites, e.g. excessive sleep versus insomnia. For most people exposed to combat, a number of these reactions (but not all) are normal. And for most warriors, the bulk of these effects fade after a few days. The experience of US Military medicine in WWII indicated that a person was in fact more likely to fully recover if after only a short break he returned to his unit and continued to engage in combat. Why this is true is a matter of speculation, but it may be the case that someone who disengages from combat stress can see himself as a permanent failure if not allowed to return to duty with "the rest of the normal soldiers."

Acute combat reactions are fairly well understood. Most people experience them if under enough combat stress--that amounts to something like 96% to 98% of all modern combat soldiers, with a very small group of exceptions, as previously noted in edition 2 of this series on combat realism in stories, The Fearless Elite.

The list of effects I copied above starts to fade into longer term effects when it lists depression, substance abuse, loss of adaptability, attempted suicides, disruptive behavior, and mistrust of others. These particular traits can become long-term conditions. And acute reactions, from nightmares, to depression, hypervigilance,  heart palpations, and more, can occur in someone who has been long removed from combat if something occurs that triggers the memories of warfare. A mild example would be how I for a long while after returning from Iraq (where I was subjected to rocket attacks over a long period) would "excessive startle" at loud banging noises from firecrackers to slamming doors.

Other reactions include a sense that life outside of combat is ridiculously trivial, which is understandable when dealing with life and death in war versus dealing with running errands in regular life. In addition, a person who has experienced extremes of emotion on the battlefield often shows signs of emotions being fused in ordinary life. So a person can rapidly become angry or experience other rapid shifts of emotion. I found myself experiencing some of the sense that ordinary life doesn't matter much, as well as quicker-than-normal anger.

My reactions, such as they were, faded in me over a period of several years. And they do fade for most people, but for many, never very much. True stories of veterans who suffer from nightmares, or who can not be safely awakened unexpectedly in the middle of the night, or who always sit in the corners of restaurants to keep an eye on an entire room are extremely common. 

Historical accounts of medieval behavior, in which knights seem to show very little emotional control are also well known to historians. That is, they seem to have demonstrated signs of the kind of emotional swings experienced by someone exposed to traumatic stress. Please note that these stresses are not limited to combat--people can experience this from other kinds of trauma, especially when they are exposed to it as children. Please note that many children in the medieval world were exposed to violent trauma--and this would also be common in many worlds of epic fantasy. 

What exactly is the connection between acute combat reactions and long-term post traumatic stress is difficult to say in a broadly meaningful way. Some people have a greater tendency to deal with long-term problems than others, though why isn't clear. Note though that a person is not necessarily disabled by continuing to have a post-traumatic reaction. People can have sudden unexpected reactions to certain smells or sounds or other stimuli that remind them of their combat stress without being paralyzed by such reactions. People can suffer from black moods and have suicidal thoughts and overcome such conditions, especially with help from others who have gone through the same sorts of things. In fact, it's important for veterans to realize such reactions are to a degree, normal, and to talk to one another, or at times to professionals, about their experiences is healthy and good. 

One factor that seems to relate to how soldiers react to combat over the long-term stems from whether people are able to justify their actions in combat to themselves. A person who looks back and feels he acted morally, correctly, does much better in dealing with post traumatic stress than those who look at back at their own behavior and see it as reprehensible. Note the sense of "morality" I'm referencing does not necessarily mean a person is good--a knight judging his actions from a  warped view of Christianity may have felt morally justified in killing defenseless Muslims and Pagans--that doesn't mean he actually was justified in a broader moral sense. But the ability to feel justified has always helped warriors deal with the aftermath of combat. Those who cannot justify their actions to themselves have a harder time.

Note also there is a difference between having post traumatic stress or a post traumatic stress reaction and having PTSD--Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The disorder occurs when veterans are disabled by their experiences, when their lives are interrupted significantly.  A person can have a certain amount of permanent effects from combat--it is normal in fact to have some--while still functioning in life in a normal way. Or mostly normal...

Stories that include combat should reflect these realities.

Since this post addressed psychological reactions to combat stresses after combat, for the next installment of this series I'll discuss psychological and physiological reactions to stress during combat.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

I live you...I live you very much.

I'm still playing hooky from the next installment of my Combat Realism series. Let me float a different story idea instead:

Imagine a story setting in which you could assume the body of another person. Any other person, living or dead, complete with their memories. (This post was inspired by a friend's comment a while ago concerning spell check correcting her "I love you" to "I live you"--thanks, Teddi.)

Something like my idea has been done in a variety of ways in the past. An original Star Trek episode featured a machine that was able to transfer a woman's inner self, her soul if you will (though the episode didn't use that term) into Captain Kirk's body and vice versa. Later, in the movies, Doctor McCoy carries around Spock's Katra, the Vulcan equivalent to a soul (given to him in a mind-meld) prior to it being returned to a new version of Spock's body.

Stories have even featured robot surrogates that a person can project their consciousness into. Or on a technologically simpler level,virtual reality projections have been proposed in which anybody could assume the shape of anyone or anything in a highly realistic digital projection that hits all of a person's senses.

On a similar vein, I've proposed in the past on this blog the ability to save and recover a person's brain with electronic implants (in my post on Revive), a system that would act as a "black box" for a person's mind. And later in The Interchangeable Brain I took this idea a step further and imagined people could swap the brain data I previously discussed, effectively taking the place of another person. ("Or would they really?" I wondered.)

Let me develop the previous notions further. Imagine a story world in which a human being could be rapidly grown from DNA samples, (which sci fi has done numerous times). Then the brain of this new clone could be reprogrammed with a person's mind (again, as stated above, this has been written before). But to take this a step further, imagine a world in which careful genetic research could reproduce the bodies of people no longer living. Then implant their brains with recreations of their memories based on what is known of that person from history--and then place a living person into that system. You would not be yourself in another body--your very thoughts would be changed, merged with those of the person you entered.

Figures from history would be very popular for this sort of thing, but so would living celebrities. Imagine living celebrities being paid high royalties for allowing people to copy them. So that strangers could merge their thoughts and inner selves into the bodies of the rich and famous. Though this sort of procedure could be attempted so it isn't a merger--it instead could be set up so the stranger would be just an observer in another person's mind.

First of all, the ability to recreate historic people at all would make something like a Jurassic Park of historical figures, wouldn't it? Or at least would make it possible--imagine Napoleon vs. Genghis Khan vs. Julius Caesar. Though that's not my focus here.

The ability to load yourself into historic or celebrity brains would allow unique opportunities of learning about the lives of fascinating people from the past and present. Though for the historic figures, a lot would depend on the types of memories loaded into a brain and what DNA was used to create a person. People like Jesus or Socrates, for whom only some thoughts and experiences are preserved by history and any direct relatives from which DNA could be extrapolated are long since gone, would be especially controversial. (Especially an attempt to clone Jesus. I'd find such an attempt inherently foolish and doomed to fail--others would see it as blasphemy.) There would have to be multiple versions with radically different characteristics for further-in-the-past or obscure historical figures...

The same sort of thing could be done with digital modeling in theory. But genetic systems--what I would call in a story using this idea "wet modeling"--would develop a complexity that due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle digits may never be able to reproduce. And even if totally realistic virtual reality were possible in some super-technological future, some people would prefer "wet models."

The reason to tackle this sort of story as someone who has the Christian convictions I hold would be because it gives the opportunity to ask: "What is the difference between the contents of all a person's memories and the soul? What does it really mean to be who you are? Is it possible to think radically different thoughts, ones you'd never thought before, and still be yourself when you're finished?"

That leads to how I would end such a story. As I'd write it, merging your mind with another person's mind would be filled with unexpected failures and unpredicted reactions. Even in such a super-technological world as the one I'm imagining here, God is the master of circumstances, not we human beings. And I would say that thinking someone else's thoughts, even for a short time, would change who you are. There would be no going back to thinking the exactly same way as you had beforehand (which relates to another thing my friend Teddi said, that the Bible states in Proverbs that a person is what they think). So at the point where the protagonist realized this is true, that's where I'd want to use the line, "I live you...I live you very much."

Though that might be the sort of thing only my brain, under these present circumstances, would find clever. :)

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