Monday, July 11, 2016

Non-lethal Weapons of the Science Fiction Future

Inspired by a Facebook comment by Jessi Roberts (thanks Jessi!), I've decided to comment on non-lethal weapons. The most famous of which would be the Star Trek phaser, set on stun:

The general problem is that it is harder to disable someone than to kill them. Recall the case of the terrorist attack in Moscow in 2002, when terrorists from Chechnya took over a theater. In the end, the Russians pumped an anesthesia gas into the place, which killed about 130 innocent people, but allowed all 40 terrorists to be killed and allowed some 700 other people to be rescued. The problem with gas is an overdose is very easy. And people who fall asleep may involuntarily vomit and choke to death on their own emesis. So you could say the Russian solution worked--unless you were one of the 130 killed on accident. Or related to them.

Other disabling systems have the same problem. Too little of whatever you want to use and the person you intended to stun is still on his feet, ready to hurt you. Too much and you might permanently injure or kill the person you mean to stun. Ultrasonic waves or infrared heat that can disable an opponent at a certain range of energy are ineffective or overkill at others. And the systems required to set up such "stun" settings are not presently something you can just hold in your hand. And the chances are you won't be able to hold anything like that in your hand any time soon. The Star Trek "stun" setting is simply fiction. Knocking people out without killing them is a lot harder than that.

Star Wars used carbon freezing to in effect "stun" Han Solo (though Star Wars also shows a stun beam at least once), though of course if you freeze a person, the real problem comes with thawing him out. Frozen cells rupture, so a thawed person in reality is as good as dead. Star Wars offered no real solution to this problem, only hinting at the difficulty by making Han Solo temporarily blind on his release from his imprisonment. But even if you mastered the technology of freezing and rethawing, actual freezing would surely work a lot better in a controlled environment, just like anesthesia works a lot better on a surgical table than in a Moscow theater.

A pretty effective modern system revolves around pepper spray, which is usually good at causing pain and making people drop to the ground, disabled but not killed. This isn't very practical for military use, since its range is so short and it can be cancelled out by chemical protective gear (and a tiny percentage of people can ignore pepper spray anyway). 

And in a science fiction context, I think you'd have no assurance that the pepper spray we use would work at all on an alien species--they might simply get angry. Or HUNGRY for that matter. :)
The modern taser gives a better example of how an effective stun system might work. The taser uses electrical pulses to in essence override the nervous system of the person its used on. This still isn't practical as a military weapon, because its range is too short. But imagine you could fire a taser rocket that would fly over to an enemy, guiding itself, then delivering the taser charge and keep it going until its owner came to turn it off. THAT might be very effective. And its stunning effect could be tailored to match the species it attacks. (Or we could imagine a self-piloting flying syringe delivering designer anesthetic.)

In fact, contemplating a future with robotic weapons incorporating computer systems that would have the ability to individually calculate dosages of anesthesia or amounts of shocking energy and monitor the person who falls afterwards, non-lethal systems suddenly become much more probable. There seems little doubt that individually fired flying projectiles, ones that could guide themselves to their target, and that could deliver a precise dose of whatever it took to knock out an opponent, such technology would seem to be an inevitable part of the future of weapons. 

Note that other futuristic computerized systems are possible, not just the self-guiding projectile kind. You could have a door that automatically stuns people who attempt to break in. Or bomblets which drop from the sky, opening up into little flying or even crawling robots, seeking out people to stun. Or a nanite cloud, which in science fiction are usually portrayed as eating people alive, instead, delivering them just the right amount of anesthesia to put them to sleep.

Taking prisoners could become the standard practice in future wars, actually killing people on purpose considered barbaric and unneeded. Or at least certain science fiction races would see it that way. (Others, presumably, would not.)

So, dear friends, as you write combat scenarios in a science fiction context, don't forget the non-lethal weapons. They are certain to be the wave of the future for real military operations.


Saturday, July 2, 2016

An Open Letter to the Alien Invaders of Earth (Independence Day Resurgence)

(Without discussing the entire story, this post commits numerous movie SPOILERS for "Independence Day Resurgence")
                     (The alien queen, in action, mentioned below: Independence Day Resurgence)

Dear Alien Invaders of Earth,

I offer my most sincere condolences on your total failure to once again defeat what must surely be one of the weakest space powers in your known universe, what you must think of as the obscure and little-known Planet Earth. I would like to kindly offer you a small bit of tactical advice for your next attack, since you clearly need it.

I'm saying this as a resident of Earth myself, even though my planet occupies an alternate timeline from the one in the film I recently watched, since we have never been literally invaded before and united as a planet to build a space defense force after the fact. Please note that the documentary film of the climatic events which occurred in your alternate universe has been released in many Earth languages on my world. The one I saw was in Spanish, so perhaps there are a few details concerning your invasion plan which were lost in translation for me.

Though I must say, I felt your invasion plan was going very well at first. You targeted the lunar-based space defense force with ruthless efficiency and followed up with an immediate and decisive strike against all space defense forces orbiting Earth. At this point in the documentary, I had high hopes for the success of your plan, because on close approach to Earth, destroying all the best defenses is exactly what sound military tactics called for.

Though if I may add this: if you simply fired a very powerful single space weapon, of the kind that would really require a lot less energy than maneuvering your massive "mother ship" through the gravitational field of Earth, from far away from Planet Earth itself (say from the orbit of our neighboring planets Mars and Venus) I do not think very many (if any) Earth weapons would be able to respond from so far away. Just a thought.

Though perhaps you wished to savor your revenge up close. Very well--who am I to judge the requirements of alien revenge?

However, after destroying the space-based defenses systematically and rapidly, I am puzzled as to why you did not follow up with a systematic attack on the Earth ground-based defenses. I mean, it was a primitive weapons platform designed to fly in the oxygen atmosphere of Earth that took you out before. So I would think you would have targeted them this time, making sure there were none of them left.

And I must also admit to being puzzled at your plan to destroy Earth itself. Yes, you benefited from the incredible luck that your chief alien enemy showed up right above the main lunar space cannon, looking hostile, without broadcasting any messages of peace and friendship which any reasonable opponent of your space empire would do (I mean, no wonder you defeated them, they're dumb), but you should have considered at least some possibility that the Earth would have benefited from alien tech helping us. So actually landing on our planet seemed to me to be an extraordinarily bad idea.

Your mother ship was something like 5,000 miles wide (or was that 5,000 kilometers?) big enough to produce a significant amount of its own gravity, which you must know, since you keep your own ship from collapsing in on itself from its own gravity somehow. Why not simply orbit Earth at a high rate of speed? The tidal forces from your ship's gravity would tear the crust apart, creating numerous earthquakes at an unbelievably massive scale and giving the globe a very satisfying end that none of our ground'based weapons would be able to do anything about. OR, alternatively, if you have mastered artificial gravity (as it seems you must have), simply pull Earth out of its orbit, sending it spiraling into the sun. Much simpler than what you actually did, while simultaneously still very dramatic.

Speaking of simple, why not just shower asteroid-sized space rocks on Earth at high velocities, thousands of them. The Earth is sitting at the bottom of a gravity well and from space you are like attackers who have taken the high ground. Drop some rocks on the people below--it works very very well, since you have the forces of nature on your side.

But in fact, it would seem you protected the Earth from the gravity of your own ship, because you did not shatter the crust of the planet when you landed on it. Sure, you killed a lot of people who happened to be under the equivalent of your landing struts, but you actually should have killed a lot more, as large as your ship was.

I suppose that must have to do with the requirements of alien revenge again. OK. You want us to die nice and slow, got it.

OK, if so, why not consider a biological agent to do that? You use bio-engineered suits to protect your bodies, so I assume your biological science are well-developed. Make a super bug, especially one that would turn humans into zombies. Watch the fun from space as we literally eat one another alive.

Or again, more simply, why not just drop a lot of poison on the planet? Powdered plutonium would do very well--or nerve agent. Or chlorine gas in massive amounts (we invented that as a weapon more than 100 of our Earth years ago, so I assume you guys must know what chlorine is, right?).

Your actual plan, of drilling a two kilometer wide hole all the way down to the planetary core, um, did not make much sense to me. How exactly was that going to destroy the planet? Earth is not a balloon filled with pressurized air. Gravity, that stuff we were talking about just a bit ago, gravity keeps the core material inside the core. Digging a hole might cause a lot of earthquakes, but not near as many as simply landing on the planet itself with whatever you used to dampen the effects of your ship gravity turned off.

Maybe I was missing something due to watching in Spanish...were you going to use artificial gravity to pull the core contents out, once you reached the core? That would take a long time through a hole only 2 kilometers wide. Well, it would destroy the planet, but lots of other things would do it even better--like dropping some neutronium or a small black hole into the center of the Earth. You would not even have to dig a tunnel--gravity would make it find its own way. And gravity would compress the planet, eating it from the inside out, killing everyone. Faster and more straightforward than the "drilling down to the core" thing.

Okay, okay, your plan was obscure, strange, unlikely, but once a plan is in motion you are committed. I get it. It's a military culture thing.

But if I may humbly suggest, why is it that if your technology was linked to a single queen and would cease functioning without her, why would you attack with a ship that has a queen on board? 

Or if you are going to use the queen, why would you only bring just one? Sure, she was several hundred feet tall, but still, with a 5,000 mile (or kilometer) diameter ship, you have room for more than one of them. You have room for thousands, if not millions, in actual fact. 

Well, no need to get excessive. You could easily have taken hundreds, but how about just a dozen? Or maybe even just one other? Just one. One spare. Is that too much to ask for you to plan in advance?

Or maybe you could invest in some automation, something that would keep the ships running when the queen is gone?

True, the humans were painfully stupid enough to send a live human to attack your ship from the inside, a job that essentially called for him to flip a switch. Couldn't they find a robot to do that? Hasn't anyone on Earth heard of automatic pilot? Sheesh!

But look, just because the humans were dumb doesn't you had to be. So you had just the one queen. There you were, fighting with the forces you actually had rather than the ones you could have wished you had.

So under the circumstances, having the one queen, the one linchpin to your entire system, having her lead the attack probably was not a great idea. And once having led the attack, she totally lost focus on what she was supposed to be doing. Chasing a school bus? Why? Going after random pilots who happened to bail out, why? Wasn't there a specific military objective she was supposed to achieve, instead of chasing any moving object in her field of view? (Don't you guys have any tranquilizers on your planet? She could have used one.)

Anyway, my condolences again on your horrific defeat. But if I may humbly submit this to an obviously powerful and technologically advanced species: sorry, but your plans suck. 

I mean, other than the first step of destroying the space-based weapons. Other than that, everything else you did was painfully stupid. No wonder you guys keep losing...

A non-fan