Archive for December, 2013

ONLY SUPERHUMAN reader question: Measuring the Green Blaze’s powers

December 30, 2013 4 comments

I recently received a few questions about Only Superhuman from Brandt Anderson via a Facebook message, and I thought I’d address them here. Brandt wrote:

I enjoy most super hero novels such as Ex-Heroes, Paranormals, Devil’s Cape, etc., and one of the things that is always forefront on my mind is stats. I like knowing exactly how strong or how fast the super-powered character is. So, I was hoping you wouldn’t mind giving an approximation on how enhanced Emerald Blair is. Her strength, speed, reflexes, senses, healing factor and durability if you don’t mind. Also, I apologize for this amount of nitpicking, would you able to tell me what her superhuman attributes be at without any of the enhancements she has? And lastly, in your world, how strong is the average super-being and what is the normal human level at?

Those are interesting questions, though to be honest, I haven’t really worked out that many of the details. It’s worth thinking about if I get to do further novels, though, so I’ll try to offer some answers. I did address Emerald Blair’s strength level in the novel when I had Eliot Thorne mention that she could “bench-press a tonne in one gee,” i.e. standard Earth surface gravity. That led me to the following analysis from my novel annotations:

From what I can find, the current world record for an unassisted or “raw” bench press (without the use of a bench shirt, a rigid garment that supports the muscles and augments the amount they can lift) for a woman in Emry’s weight class seems to be held by Vicky Steenrod at 275 lb/125 kg. Assuming Thorne was referring to what Emry could lift raw, that would make her 8 times stronger than Ms. Steenrod, at least where those particular muscles are concerned. And Emry’s training isn’t specialized for powerlifting but is more general, so that would probably make her even stronger overall. Not to mention that Thorne seemed to be talking about her typical performance, not a personal record. So as an adult Troubleshooter, with bionic upgrades on top of her Vanguardian mods, Emry might be at least 10 times the strength of an unenhanced female athlete of her size and build. That may be conservative, given some of what I’ve read about the possibilities of artificial muscle fibers. On the other hand, there are limits to how much stress the organs of even an enhanced body could endure.

By the way, the all-time raw bench-press world record is 323.4 kg by Scot Mendelson, who’s 6’1″ and over twice Emry’s weight. The assisted world record (with a bench shirt) is 487.6 kg by Ryan Kennelly, who’s about the same size and whose unassisted record is much lower. So going by what I figured before, that would make Emry nearly 4 times as strong as the strongest human beings alive today, and that’s without the added assistance her light armor would provide her (though she’d need to add sleeves to her armor to get the full effect). And that’s the lower limit. In any case, given all the bionic enhancements she’s added to her native strength, she might well be the strongest person in Solsys in proportion to her weight class, or at least right up there with the record-holders of her day.

Only Superhuman cover art by Raymond Swanland

Art by Raymond Swanland

According to my character profiles, by the way, Emerald’s height is 168 cm (5’6″) — at least in one gee or thereabouts, since people gain a bit of height in low or microgravity due to their skeletons being less compressed — and her mass is 69 kg (153 lb), which is a bit heavy for her size, but that’s because of the added weight of her bionics and reinforcements, as well as her dense musculature. So that’s strength.

What about speed? Well, I established in Chapter 6 that Javon Moremba, who’s specialized for running, could run at 60 km/h, which is just one and a third times the world record set by Usain Bolt in 2009. I’m not really sure how much it’s possible to increase human running speed without substantially restructuring human anatomy, since we’re already kind of specialized for running by evolution — although we’re specialized more for endurance running than speed, which was how our ancestors were able to be successful hunters and trackers. Javon’s anatomy is altered from the human norm, with atypically long legs and powerful joints and enlarged lungs. Emerald’s proportions are more normal, and her legs aren’t especially long; plus she’s not exactly lean. She’s built more for strength than speed. On the other hand, the athlete I modeled her physique after, tennis star Serena Williams, can be an astonishingly fast mover on the tennis court due to her sheer strength — though not as fast as her leggier sister Venus. Okay, so we can safely assume that the teenage Emry couldn’t run as fast as Javon. She’s only 84% his height and less of it is legs, so let’s say she has 75% of his stride. I actually have her down as only 72% of his mass, though; I think I based Javon’s statistics on the aforementioned Mr. Bolt. I guess the question is, what’s the comparative ratio of total muscle mass to push with and total body mass to be pushed? I think I’ll avoid any complicated math and just go with visual intuition, which tells me that Emry has proportionally more excess bulk to deal with; but once she’s bionically enhanced, that might compensate. So let’s say that with just her raw muscle, no cyborg upgrades, she’s got a minimum of 75% of his running speed, which would be equal to Bolt’s world record.

But how much do her upgrades boost her strength? Well, we know that she was always strong enough in her adolescent years to match or overpower any man, and judging by those weightlifting figures above, a man’s maximum strength might be something around 2.5 times a woman’s, all else being equal. But many of those men would be mods themselves, so we’d need to up that. Still, I don’t want too much of her strength to be innate, since the bionics should contribute a lot. So let’s say that she started out roughly 3.3 times the normal strength of a woman of her build and had it tripled by her Troubleshooter bionics.

How does that apply to her running speed? This is probably oversimplifying like hell, but it seems to me that if you exert three times the force on the same mass, then by Newton’s second law you get three times the acceleration. Now, for a given distance, the time needed to cover it goes as one over the square root of the acceleration; and the rate is the distance over the time. So that would suggest, unless I’m doing something very wrong, that if she has three times the acceleration for each thrust of her leg muscles pushing her forward, then her speed would be increased by roughly the square root of three, or 1.73. So if her running speed without bionics was 45 km/h, then with bionics it’d be nearly 80 km/h (50 mph). Though she’s probably capable of bursts of even faster speed when she supercharges her nanofiber implants, as we saw when she made her skyscraper jump in Chapter 11. This would make her about 5/6 the typical speed of Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man, and half the top recorded speed of Jaime Sommers, the Bionic Woman. But let’s call that her sprinting speed. For endurance running, she’d probably average out a bit slower — let’s say 64 km/h (40 mph), which translates to a 1.5-minute mile — which would put her at better than two and a half times the female world record for the mile. It would also put her slightly above Javon’s indicated speed, but that was for a Javon who was out of training. (Oh, and keep in mind that this is assuming she’s in a full Earth gravity or close to it.)

There are other ways of measuring speed, though. How fast can she dodge a blow or throw a punch? That gets us into the next question, reflexes. Well, at one point in chapter 16 (p. 284 in the paperback), I say “Her enhanced reflexes made her dodge the shockdart before she was consciously aware of it, but her mind quickly caught up.” So her reaction time is certainly accelerated considerably beyond the norm, so much that it outpaces her conscious thought at times. And while her foot speed is not too much above normal, her dodging speed can be literally faster than a speeding bullet. Well, a speeding dart. If we assume the dart had a speed of around 300 m/s, comparable to an air rifle pellet and close to a 9mm bullet, and if she was maybe 15 meters away from the shooter, that would give her a twentieth of a second to react, or 50 milliseconds. That’s maybe twice the fastest recorded human reaction time for movement, and nearly four times the typical reaction time for a visual stimulus. And that’s just the reaction time she’d need to begin moving to dodge that particular dart. Add in the time it would take to move far enough to miss and she’d have to be even faster. Now, I found a factoid somewhere saying that Usain Bolt moves a foot every 29-odd milliseconds, which is about one centimeter per millisecond, so if we draw on the above comparisons to Bolt’s running speed (which is a horribly rough comparison, but it’s all I’ve got), the Green Blaze might be able to move 1.5-2 cm per millsecond, and her torso is maybe c. 32 cm at its widest point, so to dodge a dart fired at center mass she’d need maybe 8-11 ms. So she’d need to start moving within 40 ms or less, which would be 5 times average human reaction time. Just for a margin of safety and round numbers, let’s say her reaction time is 6 times average and 3 times maximum.

Edited to add: It’s occurred to me to wonder: How high could Emry jump? Of course, that depends on the gravity, so let’s assume a 1g baseline. According to my physics textbook, the maximum height of a projectile is proportional to the square of its initial velocity (specifically, the velocity squared times the square of the sine of the launch angle, divided by twice the gravity). So if we use my earlier, very rough assumption that Emry’s speed relative to an unenhanced athlete goes as the square root of her relative strength, that would cancel out the square, and thus jumping height (for the same gravity and angle) would increase linearly with strength. If she’s four times stronger than the strongest human athlete today, then, it follows she could jump roughly four times the world record for the high jump. Except it’s more complicated than that, since we’re dealing with the trajectory of her center of mass. The current world record is 2.45 meters by Javier Sotomayor. But that’s the height of the bar he cleared, not the height of his center of mass. He used a technique called the Fosbury flop, in which the body arcs over the bar in a way that keeps the center of mass below it. So his CoM was probably no more than about 2.15 meters off the ground, give or take. And he was pretty much fully upright when he made the jump. since he’s 1.95 meters tall to start with, and the average man’s CoM height is 0.56 of his total height (or about 1.09 m in this case), that would mean the world-record high jump entailed an increase in center-of-mass altitude of slightly over one meter. So if we assume that Emry is doing more of a “bionic”-style jump, keeping her body vertical and landing on her feet on whatever she’s jumping up to, then she might possibly be able to raise her center of mass up to four meters in Earthlike gravity. Which means she could jump to the roof of a one-story building or clear a typical security fence — comparable to the jumping ability of Steve Austin or Jaime Sommers.

So let’s move on to senses. We know from Ch. 3 that 13-year-old Emry’s “enhanced vision” let her make out the movements of the townspeople of Greenwood from some distance away, far enough that the curve of the habitat gave her an overhead view. Now, Greenwood is a Bernal sphere meant to simulate a rural environment with farmland and presumably forest. It should have a fairly low population density, and my notes give it a population around 3000 people. If we set the population density at maybe 30 people per square kilometer, that gives a surface area of 100 square km, for a radius of about 5 km and a circumference of 31.4 km. Now, just eyeballing it with a compass-drawn circle and a ruler, I’d say she’d need to be 1.5 to 2 km away to get the kind of raised angle described in the text. Now, being an assiduous researcher, I went out and braved the cold to visit my local overlook park to see if I could spot human figures at anything resembling that range. The farthest I was able to spot a human being was at a place that I estimate was about a mile/1.6 km away, with the park’s elevation, despite being a respectable 300 feet or so higher, too small to add significantly to the distance. But I just saw the faintest speck of movement. The scene indicates that Emry could see enough detail to make out body language and attitude. I’d say her resolution would have to be at least 3-4 times greater than mine (with glasses). Although we’re not talking about bionic eyes with zoom lenses, so it’s probably more a matter of perception of detail. Assuming my prescription is still good enough to give me 20/20 vision in at least one eye (which I probably shouldn’t assume), that would make Emry’s visual acuity something like 20/7 or 20/5 if not better; the acuity limit in the unaided eye is 20/10 to 20/8 according to Wikipedia. (20/n means the ability to see at 20 feet what an average person needs to be n feet away to see.) Hawks are estimated to have 20/2 vision. Emry isn’t specialized for eyesight, so let’s not go to that extreme. Let’s give her a baseline visual acuity of 20/5, say, about twice the human maximum.

So what do her bionics add? For one thing, they broaden her visual spectrum to the infrared. This is apparently something she can turn on and off. Now, it should be remembered that TV and movies tend to misrepresent infrared vision as being able to see through walls. Actually that usually wouldn’t work, since walls are generally designed to insulate, so heat — and thus IR light — doesn’t pass through them easily. And as I said in the book, glass is generally opaque to IR. So this wouldn’t be the equivalent of “x-ray vision,” except when dealing with less well-insulated things like human bodies. It could enable her to read people’s emotional states through their blood flow, though, or to track recent footprints and the like. She also has an inbuilt data buffer that’s shown recording images from her eyes and letting her replay, analyze, and enhance them later, projected on the heads-up display built into her retina. So that might give her sort of a “digital zoom” ability, to enlarge part of a recorded image, but not to increase its resolution beyond what her eyes could detect. And her implants might up her acuity to maybe 20/4.

As for her hearing, I haven’t established anything beyond the fact that it’s better than normal. She can probably hear a somewhat larger dynamic range than most people and has somewhat more sensitivity, but I’m not sure it could be enhanced too much without a substantial alteration to the anatomy of the ears. But she could have bionic auditory sensors that could allow her to amplify sounds further as needed.

As for scent, I establish in Ch. 20 that Emry can track by it, though not as well as someone more specialized for the task like Bast or Psyche. So her sense of smell is, again, somewhat above normal but not massively so. Which would enhance her sense of taste accordingly as well. It’s possible she’s a supertaster, like a lot of real-life people. (In fact, looking over the list of foods that supertasters dislike, I think I might be one!)

As for her sense of touch, it’s no doubt unusually sensitive, which is why she’s so hedonistic and easily stimulated. Although her pain sense is no doubt diminished in comparison to her other tactile perceptions. I gather that redheads are normally more sensitive to pain than most, but it stands to reason that her nociception would have been somewhat suppressed.

“Healing factor” is a tricky one; I’m not sure how to codify it. But she does have a fast metabolism and thus probably heals a bit faster than normal, and her bionics include a “nanotech immune-boosting and injury repair system,” as stated in her character bio. She can’t heal nearly instantly like Wolverine in the movies, since there would be physical and metabolic limits on how fast repairs could realistically be done, but she could probably heal, at a guess, 2-4 times faster than normal depending on the type of injury and whether she’s able to rest and replenish or has to heal on the run. (That’s complete guesswork, since I’m not sure where to find information on human healing rates, what the recorded maximums are, or what mechanisms could enhance them.) She’s also got an augmented immune system, both inborn and nanotech-enhanced; she’s probably got little or no experience with being sick, though she might be susceptible to a sufficiently potent bioweapon. She has toxin filters to protect her from poisoning and drugs. Alcohol would probably have little effect on her, but if she is a supertaster, she wouldn’t like the taste of it anyway. And it’s not like she needs help relaxing her inhibitions, since she hardly has any to begin with.

Durability, though, is something the Green Blaze has in abundance, thanks to her “dense Vanguardian bone” and the nanofiber reinforcements to her skeleton and skin. She’s not easy to hurt. She takes a good deal of pounding in Only Superhuman, but the only skeletal injury she suffers is a hairline wrist fracture which is compensated for by her nanofiber bracing. She rarely sustains more than cuts, bruises, and strains. She’s not exactly bulletproof — she needs her light armor for that — but there are enough reinforcements around her skull and vital organs that it would take a pretty high-powered rifle to inflict a life-threatening injury. Her skull reinforcements are probably comparable to a military ballistic helmet, so shooting her in the head would probably cause surface bleeding and a moderate concussion at worst, and more likely just make her mad. And of course her light-armor uniform gives even more protection, strength enhancement, and the like. (Note that this is as much a matter of micrometeorite protection as bullet protection.)

One power Brandt didn’t ask about is intelligence. Emerald Blair embraces her physical side more than her intellectual side, but her intelligence is easily at genius level. She’s definitely smarter than I am, since I have plenty of time to figure out the solutions that she comes up with on the fly. She’s far more brilliant than she realizes yet, and when and if she catches on and begins developing that potential, she could be a superbly gifted detective and problem-solver.

Brandt’s final question is, “And lastly, in your world, how strong is the average super-being and what is the normal human level at?” Well, the normal, unmodified human level is the same as it would be in real life, although people living in lower-gravity conditions would be less strong than Earth-dwelling humans. As for mods, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as an average one, since they’ve specialized in diverse directions. Only some are augmented for physical strength, like Vanguardians, many Neogaians, and Mars Martialis… ans… whatever. Honestly, I’m not sure to what extent physical strength would be needed as a human enhancement in Strider civilization. Combat in the future will be mostly the purview of drones and robots, or soldiers in strength-enhancing exoskeletons. So enhancing individual strength would be more a choice than a necessity, probably more likely to be done for athletics than anything else.

Still, in a setting like Strider civilization, where mods have embraced superhero lore as a sort of foundational mythology, there would be an element of sports and celebrity to crimefighting or civil defense. More fundamentally, in a culture where human modification is embraced, physical strength could be seen as a desirable “biohack” just for the sense of power it provides. It’s like how some people like high-performance muscle cars even though they don’t need that much power to commute to work. I think in the Vanguardians’ case it was about exploring the limits of the human animal, finding how far we could be augmented in every possible way, both as a matter of scientific curiosity and as a symbolic statement to inspire others to mod themselves — and thumb their noses at Earth’s resistance to such things. The average Vanguardian might be somewhere around Emry’s pre-bionic strength level, maybe 3-3.5 times normal muscle strength for a given build, though they vary widely in their builds. Still, I think that Beltwide, only a certain percentage of mods would be tailored for strength, with others emphasizing endurance, senses, reaction time, intelligence, adaptation to particular environments, etc. (on top of the radiation resistance that everyone living in space would need).

So, to sum up the Green Blaze’s powers:

  • Strength: c. 10x normal for a woman of her build or 4x baseline-human maximum
  • Speed: up to 80 km/h (50 mph) in c. 1g environment
  • Reaction time: c. 6x average or 3x human maximum
  • Vision: c. 20/4 visual acuity, infrared vision, visual recording and enhancement
  • Other senses: Moderately above human maximum range and sensitivity
  • Healing: Somewhat accelerated healing and cellular repair; very strong immune system and toxin resistance
  • Durability: Considerable resistance to abrasion, contusion, laceration, and broken bones; bullet resistance comparable to a human in moderate body armor
  • Intelligence: Genius-level but underdeveloped

Note, however, that these are her innate power levels, not counting the further enhancements her light armor would provide to her strength, durability, and speed. But figuring those out would be a whole other essay.

Wow, I got a pretty long essay out of this. It was fun, and it could be useful for future adventures, hopefully. So I’ll open the door. If anyone has further questions about Only Superhuman that haven’t been addressed already on my website, or more generally about my work, feel free to post them in the comments or on Facebook. Easy questions asked in the comments will probably be answered there, while more involved questions may spawn more essays. We’ll see how it goes.

Note: “The Doctors’ first and last lines” now updated

The most popular post on this blog seems to be my 2011 list of the first and last lines of each incarnation of Doctor Who‘s lead character, and the recent anniversary and Christmas specials have revealed several more regenerations. So I’ve updated my list accordingly, and it’s now as comprehensive and up-to-date as I can currently get it:

The Doctors’ first and last lines? (Doctor Who) — UPDATED December 2013


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The Man From UNCLE Season 2 Affair: Eps. 19-24 (Spoilers)

“The Waverly Ring Affair”: After raiding a THRUSH message drop disguised as a storefront photo developing service (complete with an oddly blurry fight scene — perhaps there was a camera error and they couldn’t afford a reshoot), Illya finds a top-security UNCLE document in the captured packet, revealing that there’s a mole inside UNCLE HQ. We get to see more of UNCLE’s security procedures as Solo and Illya investigate. Suspicion seems to fall on a friendly Clark Kent-meets-Fred MacMurray type named George Dennell (Larry Blyden), who’s caught with a secret document and gets kicked out of UNCLE and “de-trained” using a spinny-disk hypnosis “beam” to erase his classified knowledge — but it’s really a ploy by Solo to use George as bait for THRUSH recruitment. It’s pretty easy to guess that the other new UNCLE employee introduced here, Carla (Elizabeth Allen) — who’s just friends with George though he wants more — is really the THRUSH mole. But when Solo gets captured by both of them seemingly working together, it’s unclear which one is the real mole — especially since they both seem to have so-called Waverly rings, a top-security device that can only be issued by Waverly himself to his most trusted operatives. Which one is the real spy? (Well, for THRUSH, I mean. Obviously they’re both spies.)

This is a fairly good episode, a nice look inside the title organization, though as is often the case, the climactic action gets a little incoherent. Still, there was a moment where I thought the story was going to go in a totally different direction. The de-training hypnotist, Dr. Lazarus (Jim Boles), had a very sinister-looking pointy goatee, so I thought, “Of course! He’s the mole! He frames UNCLE agents for security breaches, gets them kicked out, and pretends to hypnotize them into forgetting all UNCLE’s secrets, but he rigs the process with a back-door suggestion so THRUSH agents can capture them, trigger their suppressed memories, and get their secrets! It’s brilliant!” But none of that actually happened. Which is a pity, since that sounded more interesting than what we got. Not that this was a bad one, but it feels like a missed opportunity, and a less cohesive story, since the hypnosis angle has little payoff in the actual episode.

“The Bridge of Lions Affair, Parts 1 & 2”: Solo investigates the disappearance of elderly scientist Dr. Lancer, who looks like James Doohan in old-age makeup, and the appearance of a man with identical fingerprints named Bainbridge, who looks like James Doohan with a fake mustache. Bainbridge, of course, is a de-aged Lancer, as he reveals to the elderly Sir Norman Swickert, played in age makeup by the great Maurice Evans, who does such a convincing job playing an elderly man that I almost forgot he was still much younger at the time this was made. Swickert was once one of the great men of power in the UK, and he formed the Bridge of Lions Society, a chess club allowing world leaders to keep the lines of communication open so the misunderstandings that led to World War I couldn’t happen again.

Solo’s investigations lead him to Lancer’s daughter Lorelei, a model at the Paris salon of Mme. Raine De Sala (Vera Miles), who has ambitions to seize the power that the men of the world reserve for themselves, and who has her henchwoman Olga (Monica Keating) strangle Lorelei and shoot Dr. Lancer/Bainbridge/Scotty to keep them from talking to Solo. There’s also a Richard Kiel-esque strongman chauffeur, Fleeton (Cal Bolder), who tries to keep Solo from getting into Swickert’s estate by lifting the front of his roadster and rotating it to point in the other direction — whereupon Solo simply kicks it into reverse to get inside.

Meanwhile, Illya is tracking cats around Soho, trying to find out why they’re being, err, catnapped. And eventually THRUSH’s Hong Kong office, of all places, gets wind of these investigations, and their Waverly equivalent (James Hong) orders Jordin (Bernard Fox, without his usual mustache) to look into it all. Which is a slow scene that’s mostly for padding, but it’s mildly interesting to see inside a THRUSH HQ and to see how different James Hong looked and sounded back then.

It’s a while before all these plot threads come together. Raine reveals that she’s been in love with Sir Norman since she was a little girl — maybe it was his power she was in love with, but Vera Miles and Maurice Evans have a beautifully acted scene where Sir Norman speaks of how time has defeated him and Raine passionately insists she can give it back to him. It’s perhaps the finest acting I’ve seen on this show — which helps make up for the performance of the innocent, Sir Norman’s nurse Joanna (Ann Elder), who has an atrociously fake Irish accent. Anyway, the cats are research subjects for Gritzky (Harry Davis) and his age-reversing process, which Raine has developed so she could de-age Sir Norman in a machine that’s basically a big box with Robby the Robot’s head on top. That’s not a joke; it’s actually the outer part of Robby the Robot’s head used as the machine’s dome. (IMDb’s episode page actually says “Robby the Robot … Part of Rejuvenating Machine (uncredited).”) But even as Sir Norman is being de-aged, Solo and Illya try to win over Joanna, but she’s a prim lass who doesn’t like strange men showing up at her window, so she summons Fleeton, who knocks them out and dumps them into a wine press. Holy vintage! Can our heroes handle the pressure? Will they be turned into wine before their time? Tune in next week, same UNCLE time, same UNCLE channel!

Or, just play the next episode on the DVD. Which opens without a “Previously…” montage, instead replaying some of that well-acted Miles/Evans sequence interspersed with new material of Solo and Illya trying to shore up the wine press. Apparently lifting the floor left enough space underneath to save them, for Jordin subsequently retrieves Solo (while Illya plays dead) and quizzes him on recent events, recapping part 1 through dialogue — similar to what they attempted in their previous 2-parter, but better handled. Illya helps Solo get away from Jordin. Later, we see Sir Norman in the Robby-head contraption, and it actually plays out differently than in the closing shot of part 1: Rather cleverly, the de-aging machine causes no instant outward effect, but triggers the cells to gradually restore themselves over the ensuing days.

Some time later, Sir Norman has made a triumphant return to politics, and his old friend Waverly sends our boys to try to talk him into turning the process over to UNCLE before THRUSH gets it. But Sir Norman insists it’s his marriage to Raine that’s rejuvenated him and won’t reveal the truth. But Jordin has the room bugged, so he captures Dr. Gritzky and blackmails Raine into sharing the de-aging process with THRUSH. By this point, though, Sir Norman has realized that he’ll need monthly treatments to stay rejuvenated, and that he’s therefore trapped. He doesn’t like that, and he wonders if Raine ever really loved him.

Solo tries to reach Sir Norman and tries to persuade Nurse Joanna that he’s on their side. Having little success, he asks Mr. Waverly to fly over and talk to Sir Norman. But Jordin gets the drop on Solo and puts him and Joanna back in the wine press. Later, Waverly arrives, but Raine has Jordin take him prisoner — and the unflappable Waverly utterly schools him in the etiquette of proper hostage-taking. Leo G. Carroll is in rare form here, and later on as he and Solo contrive their escape from the press.

But Sir Norman has reached his own decision without Waverly’s help. He tries to convince Gritzky that the process is a trap and must be buried, even if Gritzky has to be buried along with it. Jordin just barely stops him from shooting Gritzky himself, but Sir Norman urges Gritzky to do the right thing. He then begins to confess the whole story to his assembled compatriots, and when Jordin attempts to shoot him, Raine surprises her husband and herself by taking the bullet for him. Gritzky subjects himself to an overdose of the machine, and booby-traps it, taking Jordin out of the picture. His secret is lost, except for a notebook that even UNCLE’s computers can’t decode — at least, not anytime soon.

This is one of those stories that would’ve been so much easier to resolve if not for the insistence on maintaining the status quo of the world. Sir Norman and Gritzky were trapped because only Gritzky held the secret and couldn’t let THRUSH have it — but if he’d just published it, then everyone would’ve had the secret and the bad guys would’ve had no advantage. Not to mention the potential benefits to humanity. Plus there would’ve been no need for Gritzky’s suicide.

Still, this 2-parter is the highlight of the season so far and one of the high points of the series. I’ve found this season rather disappointing on the whole, but this one really clicked, with a good script by Howard Rodman (story by Henry Slesar) and effective direction by E. Darrell Hallenbeck, as well as mostly excellent guest performances (with one or two exceptions). The main thing it was missing was an original score.

“The Foreign Legion Affair”: Speaking of original scores, this one has an entirely new one that’s immediately recognizable as Gerald Fried’s work, built around an Arabian-style leitmotif that presages Fried’s Capellan theme for Star Trek: “Friday’s Child.” Illya is caught photographing a THRUSH code somewhere in Morocco. He manages to escape, but the THRUSH agents get to his chartered plane before he arrives, and for some reason, instead of just shooting him, they replace the pilots and go through the charade of taking off and everything. For some reason, the plane’s stewardess Barbara (Danielle De Metz) doesn’t discover this substitution until after they’ve taken off, so she and Illya are both taken by surprise. But Illya fights the baddies off and parachutes out with Barbara, landing deep in the Sahara, where they stumble across a French Foreign Legion fort run by Capt. Calhoun (Howard Da Silva), who doesn’t know the Legion was disbanded five years ago and the Arab war ended, so he arrests them as enemy spies. (For some reason, he thinks the blond, Nordic Illya is a Tuareg, one of the Berber natives of Saharan North Africa.)  Meanwhile, Solo goes to Casablanca to investigate, gets captured, and predictably gains the support of a gorgeous and very lusty harem-girl type, Aisha (Vivienne Ventura), who helps him escape.

The “outpost commander who doesn’t know the war is over” trope is a hackneyed one, and it plays rather goofily at first (Da Silva’s character is supposedly Irish but you’d never know it from his New Yawk accent), but it ends up taking a rather touching turn when we learn of the unearned disgrace that drove Calhoun to the legion, and the reasons for the loyalty of his only underling, Cpl. Remy (Rupert Crosse). So what seemed like it was going to be a very silly episode turned out to be rather sweet. Although it’s certainly jam-packed with Arab stereotypes.

“The Moonglow Affair”: This is a backdoor pilot for the spinoff The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., which would premiere the following season. However, although it introduces that show’s main characters April Dancer (a name suggested by Ian Fleming, unsurprisingly) and Mark Slate, they’re played by different actors here, namely Mary Ann Mobley and Norman Fell rather than Stefanie Powers and Noel Harrison. Slate is introduced here as an older agent, the man who trained Solo, and now he’s been brought in to train Dancer, apparently UNCLE’s first female field agent. They’re needed to take over an investigation that’s gotten Illya captured and Solo exposed to a THRUSH radiation weapon causing sensory aphasia. Due to the importance of the mission, Waverly bends the rules that say agents over 40 (like Slate) aren’t allowed in the field.

The bad guys are Arthur Caresse (Kevin McCarthy) and his sister Jean (Mary Carver), whose front is the Caresse cosmetics company — seriously, why do so many THRUSH operatives go into the glamour business? Caresse is working on a new cosmetics line called Moonglow, and Waverly is concerned that they may be planning to sabotage America’s Project Moonglow rocket program, since of course the first thing that enemy saboteurs will do to keep their evil plans secret is to name their cover story after the exact thing they’re targeting. April goes in as a secretary, but inevitably (given that they cast Miss America 1959 in the role), Arthur takes one look at her and appoints her the new Miss Moonglow — much to Jean’s frustration, for while she’s trying to pick the best spokesmodel, he just picks the girl he most wants to sleep with. While April uses her feminine wiles on him, Mark tracks down Illya and saves him from execution, getting into fights with THRUSH assassins and generally being Too Old For This Crap. It turns out the plan is to irradiate the US astronauts’ space food so they’ll go loopy and crash, thus scuttling both the US and Soviet  space programs so that THRUSH can hold the high ground. While Mark scuttles this plan, April manages to find the microdot plans to THRUSH’s rocket base (as if there weren’t enough McGuffins already), and when Jean discovers her identity, she manages to get the better of both Caresse siblings, but unfortunately the episode wasn’t willing to let a woman save the day all by herself, so she gets irradiated and needs Mark to save her.

All in all, not a particularly good backdoor pilot. I can see why they recast the leads. I liked Mary Ann Mobley a lot in her Mission: Impossible appearance, but here, while she was certainly very nice to look at, she came off as a bit vapid and limited as a performer. And Norman Fell wasn’t very appealing at all. Really, I’m not sure why this pilot convinced them to go ahead with the spinoff. Although in the final show, Mark Slate was made British and de-aged ten years, no doubt to make him more Kuryakinesque. Odd that they  revised a character so completely in what was supposed to be the same continuity. Why not change the character name along with everything else?

The main virtue here is another full score by Gerald Fried, in a mode that’s at once very much a ’60s spy score (with lots of bass guitar and bongos) and very much a Fried score. I’ve commented on how Fried’s earlier scores for this show sounded kind of underdeveloped, sounding more like his early/contemporary comedy work (on Gilligan’s Island) but not quite having the full-fledged qualities of his familiar adventure/drama scoring on shows like Star Trek and M:I. But by now, between “The Foreign Legion Affair” and this one, I can safely say that Fried’s style had reached maturity.

“The Nowhere Affair”: A search for a map to a THRUSH facility takes Solo to MGM’s Western town backlot the ghost town of Nowhere, Nevada, where he’s captured by the enemy and takes a temporary-amnesia pill. The facility’s head, Longolius (David Sheiner putting on a Western accent), doesn’t believe he’s amnesiac, but his captive cybernetics expert Tertunian (Lou Jacobi) convinces him it’s real, and that the best way to break through the memory block is to “arouse” his metabolism — which predictably means sending a woman to seduce him. Just as predictably, the computer-dating algorithm Tertunian runs reveals that the ideal candidate is the one woman already working in the facility, Mara (Diana Hyland), who protests because she’s a bookish type who missed the obligatory seduction course for female THRUSH agents. Yet also predictably, she somehow manages to seduce Solo like a pro. (She even has a seminude scene that’s surprisingly revealing for 1966.) And even more predictably, she falls in love with him and helps him escape to sabotage the facility. (His memory returns when she puts a gun in his hand — which was almost a good scene, seeing his nonverbal reaction as he regained himself, but then they went and ruined it by redundantly revealing the same thing in stilted dialogue.) The predictability is only slightly offset by the revelation that Tertunian chose her with the full knowledge that this would happen, intending all along to sabotage THRUSH’s plans. But that doesn’t help any, since a few scenes earlier, we’d seen Longolius actually planning to let Solo escape so they could follow him to UNCLE, but then when Solo actually does escape, Longolius is outraged and betrayed. What?

Meanwhile, Illya is trying to track Solo down and ends up bizarrely allying with a stereotypical grizzled prospector (J. Pat O’Malley) who’s found the THRUSH map and thought it was leading to buried treasure. He helps Illya find the facility and then rig it to blow up once the good guys have escaped, and is oddly untroubled by the fact that he’s just killed a whole bunch of THRUSH agents, most of them dressed up like Yul Brynner in Westworld.

The THRUSH computer lab is a nifty set at first glance, with forced-perspective computer banks seemingly receding into the distance, but then they ruin that too by shooting from side angles that give away the diminishing size of the computers.

There’s almost a nice scene in the ending, where Mara reflects on THRUSH’s lifelong indoctrination that left her no choice but to become who she is, but then it takes a rather ghastly turn when Waverly decides the best solution for her tragic upbringing is to get her to swallow down a whole bottle of barely-tested amnesia pills and hope it wipes all her memory rather than just killing her, whereupon she evidently forgets everything she’s known since childhood except that she’s in love with Solo, and this ultimate roofie is somehow supposed to be a happy ending rather than the creepiest one I’ve ever seen on this show. Egad.

So, yeah, it’s an amnesia-themed episode that I really wish I could forget. Way to go, show. At least it has a mostly new Robert Drasnin score, plus a reuse of that nice jazzy, syncopated cue I liked from “The Tigers Are Coming Affair.”

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Reflecting on AN ADVENTURE IN SPACE AND TIME (spoilers)

December 8, 2013 1 comment

I haven’t posted anything here about the recent Doctor Who anniversary productions; I never seem to have gotten into the habit of discussing current TV on the blog, since I mainly do that on sites like the The TrekBBS and Suffice to say that I really enjoyed all of it — the wonderful return of Paul McGann in the short ‘The Night of the Doctor,” the anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor” which tied off a lot of continuity threads quite beautifully and had me jumping off the couch in amazement a few times, the Internet comedy film The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot in which the surviving classic Doctors who weren’t in the special get their turn in the sun… and the biopic An Adventure in Space and Time wherein writer Mark Gatiss lovingly recreates the spirit (if not the factual details) of the formative years of Doctor Who and William Hartnell’s tenure in the role. Yesterday on the TrekBBS I made an observation about the ending of that film that’s been quite well-received by the other posters, so I felt it was worth reposting here. Naturally there are spoilers.

The discussion was about the final scene of the film, in which Hartnell (played by David Bradley) is about to film his final scene as the Doctor, and he looks over and sees the current Doctor, Matt Smith, standing across the TARDIS console and smiling at him. Several people felt that was an odd moment, saying that it took them out of the movie or that it didn’t make sense within Hartnell’s point of view. Some said maybe he should’ve seen a montage of all the future Doctors, or something. But here’s the thought I had about what the meaning of that concluding shot was:

It’s occurred to me that the shot of Smith at the end wasn’t really meant to represent Hartnell’s POV. Smith was standing in for us, the modern audience, looking back at Hartnell from our POV. I mean, this is really a pretty sad movie. Hartnell finally finds a role he loves, a professional family where he feels he belongs, but everyone leaves him and then he gets too ill to continue and they kick him out and his career withers and then he dies young and it’s all very sad. So I think that final moment reflected our wish as fans — and Mark Gatiss’s wish as the writer — that we could go back and communicate with Hartnell and tell him that what he started would leave a legacy stretching forward 50 years and more, and that he would always be remembered and cherished. To let him know, as it were, that there should be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties, because Doctor Who had gone forward in all its beliefs and proven to him that he was not mistaken in his.

Musings on quantum gravity

Recently I came across this article about an experiment to reconcile quantum physics with gravity, the one fundamental force that hasn’t yet been explained in quantum terms:

New Experiments to Pit Quantum Mechanics Against General Relativity

The problem with reconciling gravity (which is explained by Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity) and quantum physics is that they seem to follow incompatible laws. Quantum particles can exist in superpositions of more than one state at a time, while gravitational phenomena remain resolutely “classical,” displaying only one state. Our modern interpretation suggests that what we observe as classical physics is actually the result of the quantum states of interacting particles correlating with each other. A particle may be in multiple states at once, but everything it interacts with — including a measuring device or the human observer reading its output — becomes correlated with only one of those states, and thus the whole ensemble behaves classically. This “decoherence” effect makes it hard to detect quantum superpositions in any macroscopic ensemble, like, say, a mass large enough to have a measurable gravitational effect. Thus it’s hard to see quantum effects in gravitational interactions. As the article puts it:

At the quantum scale, rather than being “here” or “there” as balls tend to be, elementary particles have a certain probability of existing in each of the locations. These probabilities are like the peaks of a wave that often extends through space. When a photon encounters two adjacent slits on a screen, for example, it has a 50-50 chance of passing through either of them. The probability peaks associated with its two paths meet on the far side of the screen, creating interference fringes of light and dark. These fringes prove that the photon existed in a superposition of both trajectories.

But quantum superpositions are delicate. The moment a particle in a superposition interacts with the environment, it appears to collapse into a definite state of “here” or “there.” Modern theory and experiments suggest that this effect, called environmental decoherence, occurs because the superposition leaks out and envelops whatever the particle encountered. Once leaked, the superposition quickly expands to include the physicist trying to study it, or the engineer attempting to harness it to build a quantum computer. From the inside, only one of the many superimposed versions of reality is perceptible.

A single photon is easy to keep in a superposition. Massive objects like a ball on a spring, however, “become exponentially sensitive to environmental disturbances,” explained Gerard Milburn, director of the Center for Engineered Quantum Systems at the University of Queensland in Australia. “The chances of any one of their particles getting disturbed by a random kick from the environment is extremely high.”

The article is about devising an experiment to get around this and observe a superposition (potentially) in a “ball on a spring” type of apparatus. What interests me, though, is a more abstract discussion toward the end of the article.

Inspired by the possibility of experimental tests, Milburn and other theorists are expanding on Diósi and Penrose’s basic idea. In a July paper in Physical Review Letters, Blencowe derived an equation for the rate of gravitational decoherence by modeling gravity as a kind of ambient radiation. His equation contains a quantity called the Planck energy, which equals the mass of the smallest possible black hole. “When we see the Planck energy we think quantum gravity,” he said. “So it may be that this calculation is touching on elements of this undiscovered theory of quantum gravity, and if we had one, it would show us that gravity is fundamentally different than other forms of decoherence.”

Stamp is developing what he calls a “correlated path theory” of quantum gravity that pinpoints a possible mathematical mechanism for gravitational decoherence. In traditional quantum mechanics, probabilities of future outcomes are calculated by independently summing the various paths a particle can take, such as its simultaneous trajectories through both slits on a screen. Stamp found that when gravity is included in the calculations, the paths connect. “Gravity basically is the interaction that allows communication between the different paths,” he said. The correlation between paths results once more in decoherence. “No adjustable parameters,” he said. “No wiggle room. These predictions are absolutely definite.”

Now, this got me thinking. Every particle with mass interacts gravitationally with every other particle with mass, so there would be no way to completely isolate them from interacting. For that matter, gravity affects light too. So if gravity is an irreducible “background noise” that prevents stable superpositions, that would explain why quantum effects don’t seem to manifest with gravitational phenomena.

And that does sort of reconcile the two. The decoherence model, that classical states are what we get when quantum states interact and correlate with each other, basically means that classical physics is simply a subset of quantum physics, the behavior of quantum particles that are in a correlated state. So the “classical” behavior of gravity would also be a subset of quantum physics — meaning that relativistic gravity is quantum gravity already, in a manner of speaking. We just didn’t realize they were two aspects of the same overarching whole.

Now, this reminds me of another thing I heard about once, a theory that gravity didn’t really exist. It might have been the entropic gravity theory of Erik Verlinde, which states that gravity is, more or less, just a statistical artifact of particles tending toward maximum entropy. Now, what I recall reading somewhere, though I’m not finding a source for it today, is that this — or whatever similar theory I’m recalling — means that particles tend toward the most probable quantum state. And statistically speaking, for any particle in an ensemble, its most probable position is toward the center of that ensemble, i.e. the center of mass. So I had the thought that maybe what we perceive as gravity is more just some sort of probability pressure as particles tend toward their most likely states.

Now, if Stamp’s theory is right, then Verlinde’s is wrong; there must be an actual force of gravity, or rather, an interaction that correlates the paths of different particles. But it occurs to me that there may be some basis to the probabilistic view of gravity if we look at it more as a quantum correlation than an attraction. To explain my thinking, we have to bring in another idea I’ve talked about before on this blog, quantum Darwinism. The idea there is that the way decoherence works is that the various states of a quantum particle “compete” as they spread out through interaction with other particles, and it’s the more robust, stable states that prevail. Now, what I’m thinking is that as a rule, the most stable states would be the most probable ones. And again, those would tend to be the positions closest to the center of mass, or as close as feasible when competing with other particles.

So if we look at gravitation not as an attractive force per se, but as a sort of “correlational field” that promotes interaction/entanglement among quantum particles, then we can still get its attractive effect arising as a side effect of the decoherence of the correlated particles into their most probable states. Thus, gravity does exist, but its attractive effect is fundamentally a quantum phenomenon. So you have quantum gravity after all.

But how to reconcile this with the geometric view of General Relativity, that gravity is actually a manifestation of the effect that mass and energy have on the topology of spacetime? Well, that apparent topology, that spatial relationship between objects and their motions, could be seen as a manifestation of the probabilistic relationships among their position and movement states. I.e. a particle follows a certain path within a gravitational field because that’s the most probable path for it to take in the context of its correlation with other particles. Even extreme spacetime geometries like wormholes or warp fields could be explained in this way; an object could pass through a wormhole and show up in a distant part of space because the distribution of mass and energy that creates the wormhole produces a probability distribution that means the object is most likely to be somewhere else in space. Which is analogous to the quantum tunneling that results because the peak of a particle’s probability distribution shifts to the other side of a potential barrier. And for that matter, it has often been conjectured that quantum entanglement between correlated particles could be caused by microscopic wormholes linking them. Maybe it’s the other way around: wormholes are just quantum tunneling effects.

One other thought I’ve had that has a science-fictional impact: if gravitation is a “correlational quantum field” that helps the most probable state propagate out through the universe, that might argue against the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum decoherence. After all, gravity is kind of universal in its effect, and the correlation it creates produces what we see as classical physics, a singular state. It could be that coherent superpositions would only happen on very small, microscopic scales, and quantum Darwinism and gravitational correlation would cause a single consensus state to dominate on a larger scale. So instead of the whole macroscopic realm splitting into multiple reality-states (timelines), it could be that such splitting is only possible on the very small scale, and maybe the simmering of microscale alternate realities is what we observe as the quantum foam. It could be that the MWI is a consequence of an incomplete quantum theory that doesn’t include gravity, and once you fold in gravity as a correlating effect, it imposes a single quantum reality on the macroscopic universe.

Which would be kind of a bummer from an SF perspective, since alternate realities are useful story concepts. I’d just about come around to believing that at least some alternate realities might be stable enough to spread macroscopically, as I explained in my quantum Darwinism essay linked above. Now, I’m not so sure. The “background noise” effect of gravity might swamp any stable superpositions before they could spread macroscopically and create divergent timelines.

However, these thoughts might be applicable to future writings in my Hub universe (and as I’ve discussed before, I’ve already given up on the idea of trying to reconcile that with my other universes as alternate timelines). The Hub is a point at the center of mass of the greater galaxy — i.e. the system that includes the Milky Way proper, its satellite galaxies, and its dark-matter halo — that allows instantaneous travel to any point within that halo. I hadn’t really worked out how it did so, but maybe this quantum-gravity idea provides an answer. If gravity is quantum correlation, and all particles’ probability distributions tend toward the center of mass, then maybe the center of mass is the one point that allows quantum tunneling to the position of every other particle. Or something like that. It also provides some insight into the key McGuffin of the series, the fact that nobody can predict the relationship between Hub vectors (the angle and velocity at which the Hub is entered) and arrival destinations, meaning that finding new destinations must be a matter of trial and error. If the Hub works through quantum gravity and correlation with all the masses within the halo, then predicting vectors would require a complete, exact measurement of the quantum state of every particle within the halo, and that would be prohibitively difficult. It’s analogous to how quantum theory says that every event in the universe is already part of its wave equation, but we can’t perfectly predict the future because we’d need to know the entire equation, the behavior of every single particle, and that would take an eternity to measure. So it’s something that’s theoretically deterministic but functionally impossible to determine. The same could be true of Hub vectors.

Although… we’re only talking about one galaxy’s worth of particles, which is a tiny fraction of the whole universe. So maybe it’s not completely impossible…

Anyway, those are the musings I’ve had while lying awake in bed over the past couple of early mornings, so maybe they don’t make much sense. But I think they’re interesting.

SPIDER-MAN: DROWNED IN THUNDER makes AudioFile Magazine’s Best of 2013 list!

December 4, 2013 1 comment

The folks at GraphicAudio just sent me some excellent news: AudioFile Magazine listed their audiobook adaptation of Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder as one of their Best Audiobooks of 2013 in the “Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Audio Theater” category.

Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder audiobook

The list is here:

It may take a few moments to load, but the entry is on page 11. And here it is at GraphicAudio’s Facebook page.

I’m really pleased by this. I’ve always been proud of Drowned in Thunder, but the paperback didn’t get as much attention as I’d hoped. I’m glad to see the story getting a new lease on life thanks to GraphicAudio, and I hope this attention may eventually lead to Marvel reissuing the book (since Pocket’s license has lapsed by now).

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