Thursday, November 27, 2008

Flashlights and fallacies

Laser guns have been a staple of science fiction for almost as long as there has been science fiction - for longer, in fact, than we have had the word "laser".  The idea of using light as a weapon - clean, efficient and pure - has a particular hold upon the human imagination that no other "scifi" weapon seems to share.  Gyrojets and railrifles are popular with those of us at the outer edge, but it is lasers that everyone expects to see.

And, reliable as always when it comes to the recycling of familiar tropes, the 40kverse has them in abundance, particularly in the form of the Imperial Guard's favourite flashlight: the lasgun.  There's been some discussion recently on forums about how the lasgun works.  It's a popular topic and is sure to crop up again, but I thought I'd get some of my thoughts down while the topic was fresh in my mind.

First of all, it's worth saying that there are a number of different possible ways to achieve the typical effects described by various authors when it comes to lasweapons in the 40kverse.  What I suggest is just my way.  I make no claims to definitiveness.

I think it's worth starting by saying that I think that a laser has to be involved.  It's called a "las" weapon for a reason, so it needs to start with good old light amplification by stimulated radiation of emission.  Now, I'm no physicist, however much I might yearn to be one, but by my estimation, the laser in question needs to be a solid-state laser, with a crystal host, doped with something like Neodynium, as used in industrial cutting lasers.  To be a truly viable weapon as a laser alone, its power output would need to be mind-numbingly high for such a small weapon, though.  In addition, it would suffer, as all lasers do, from the "blooming" effect that disperses the coherent light when travelling through atmosphere, making the lasgun only effective at relatively short ranges, especially in dense atmospheres and fog.

Hence why I perceive the lasgunas more than "just" a laser weapon.  For a start, it is seen to possess natural recoil, to create a sound at muzzle-exit and to have an impact effect equivalent to a solid round.  This is why I argue for its being both a laser weapon and a particle beam weapon, albeit a fairly weak one.

Each pull of the trigger - when firing single shots - draws power from the magazine (which is really a battery) to create a laser with a peak output in excess of 3 kW or more.  The laser itself strips atomspheric atoms to align a particle beam of electrons that are propelled along magnetic rails in the barrel to follow the laser.  The accuracy of the particle beam is improved in good atmospheric conditions when it can follow the laser beam, and the laser impact will serve to enhance the impact of the particle beam, especially at low range before it can be affected by blooming.

This makes the lasgun a highly-effective assault weapon, in close quarter battle, and a serviceable rifle-analogue at longer ranges but a poor sniper's weapon.  This model would explain the recoil (caused by the particle beam) and the impact effects (likewise).  It would also explain the need for a barrel (the magnetic rails) and why sniper-models of the weapon such as the long-las require a longer barrel.  The larger size of such weapons and, of course, of weapons such as the lascannon can also then be explained by a more powerful battery pack (note the size of the pack carried by Space Marine scout snipers) delivering a more powerful laser that suffers less from blooming at longer ranges as a result of its greater power.

The lasgun would also possess a visible "bolt" of energy: the ionised particle beam.  Sniper variants at suitable ranges could potentially choose to "switch off" the particle beam to make use of the invisible laser alone where environmental conditions allowed.

The important thing to note is that the size of the battery dictates the range of the weapon, so a laspistol, with its smaller battery, has a shorter range than the lasgun or las carbine.  The length of the barrel then dictates the accuracy and power of the particle beam.

Worlds of Possibility

How big is a world?

We can put a specific set of figures on the size of a planet, of course.  I could Google the circumference of any of the planets in our solar system in ten seconds.  With that single figure I could work out how far it was to its core and its surface area .  But a world is not a planet, at least not to a human mind.

In the 40kverse, "worlds" are invariably reduced to "cities" and even "cities" find themselves reduced to little more than villages writ large.  A typical 21st Century English village - a large one, that is - is a hugely complex place with a dense mesh of political, emotion and spiritual connections all overlapping and interacting: something Agatha Christie knew well enough to imbue her heroine Jane Marple with all the wisdom of human evil merely from observing St Mary Mead and its many comings and goings.  When you increase to a city, you get the same meshes increased by a power of ten or twenty.  When you increase to a world - even a comparatively sparsely-inhabited one - it becomes so complex a place that to pretend at setting a story on "a world" is the height of arrogance.

I've just finished Star Wars Republic Commando: Triple Zero by Karen Traviss and this is a good example.  It's set on Coruscant, which is supposed to be a whole world turned into one city.  Even overlooking the many physical obstructions to this idea, the scale of this admittedly-cool concept is so vast as to overwhelm any story that claims to set itself "in" Coruscant.  Triple Zero suffered from this: its characters either had to be overwhelmed by the scale of their environment or else the events of the story had to be compressed into, rather than the whole world, a small, "village scale" section of it.  The same thing occurs in Matt Farrer's otherwise excellent Crossfire.  Hydraphur is supposed to be the capital world of a whole Segmentum, heart of an empire incorporating thousands of inhabited worlds and, itself, a world of immense scale and complexity.  But a single glance at the map of the principle city of Hydraphur (also known as Hydraphur) is enough to show that this "city" is no more than a village: completely inadequate to the scale of its alleged position.

None of that detracts from Matt's writing, of course, and it's still and excellent tale with many enthralling moments and, to Matt's credit, the subsequent stories, Legacy and Blind improved vastly upon the initial failure... although, even then, the sheer putative size of Hydraphur was too overwhelming for the plots at hand.

Perhaps the only author to have really taken this problem to hand was Richard Williams in his latest novel, Relentless.  An imperial ship is pretty much a small city in space, but Rich managed to convey the complex inter-relationships of the different "villages" within the ship by moving his protagonist from one to another, to face different challenges in each one.

What's the alternative?  To conventional authors, the solution is simply not to set a story in a world or in a city when you can set it in a village instead.  That doesn't mean rustic settings for everything: it means that a police procedural sticks to one precinct, or a space adventure sticks to one ship and a couple of small ports.  It means that a political drama stays within the "villages" of national or international politics.

But in a Black Library novel, you have more trouble.  Part of the glory and pleasure of the 40kverse is the sheer scale on which everything is done.  Fortresses aren't merely large, they fly kilometres into the sky!  They plunge miles into the planet's crust!  Cathedrals are ten times the size of something like York Minster.  Something as significant as the Emperor's palace occupies a space the size of a small continent.

Why?  Why in heaven's name do they need to be so big?  A typical plot of human drama and conflict could be set in onesuite of one tower of one wing of a standard cathedral of the Imperial Cult, but the demands of the Black Library are that the stories must match the scale of the galactic setting.

For most authors, the solution is to approach things from a village with the right perspective: one that's a good way up the pole, able to take in the sights and sounds without having to intrude upon the lesser villages or disturb the villages that are so high up as to alienate the readers.  Hence the focus on Space Marines, Inquisitors and Imperial Guard officers.  They represent villages all of their own.  But I feel certain that there's an alternative approach.

What it is, I'm not yet sure.  But if I can work it out, I'll be sure to let you know.

Contemplations of the Machine 2

I'm teaching my son to use the computer.  For a long time, he had trouble getting the idea that the monitor wasn't the computer.  He'd turn on the monitor and then, after a couple of minutes of no picture, would turn to me and complain that it wasn't working.  So I'd find myself running through, again, the routine for turning on the computer: first, the tower; then the monitor; then the speakers.

Of course, I know that he could do those things in the exact reverse order and it would still work, but he doesn't and telling him so would only confuse him.  My way, the computer is on and working at step one.  If he did it the other way around, it wouldn't be working until step three.

We have a similar situation with the Internet.  He still doesn't "get" that the games he plays at the Lego website or at CBeebies aren't "on" the computer but accessed by his computer from a computer that may be hundreds or even thousands of miles away.  He just knows that he double-clicks of the Google Chrome link, chooses his Favourites and his games are right there.  It looks like the games are "on" the computer, so that's how he sees it.  Just like it looks like all this stuff is "on" the monitor, rather than that rather dull-looking box under the desk.

In the last Contemplation, I explained how I imagined that human pre-Imperial technology required AIs to operate it.  In this example, I am the AI and my son is the insufficiently-advanced human.  Remove me from the equation (please don't!) and my son would still be able to play his favourite games but learning to use the PC's full capacity without my guidance would be impossible.  OK, the metaphor falls down somewhat because there are other adults around, and books and school lessons and suchlike.  But the AIs are all of these things.  So the Imperial Adeptus Mechanicus is like a child with a huge, powerful tool and no idea how to use it.

I should add that there's a second element to the metaphor, because one of the things I do when teaching my son to use the PC is to explain to him what not to do.

"Don't use the Internet Explorer shortcut, son," I say.  "We don't use that any more."

"Don't do searches without Mummy or Daddy being there," I tell him.  "There's some scary stuff out there."

Of course, he doesn't need to hear the detail about how Daddy only uses IE to access his hotmail account (that doesn't work on Google Chrome) or to find out about the "grown up" side of the Web.  He just needs to know that the PC can do dangerous things if you don't know how to use it.

So the Adeptus Mechanicus, lacking that parental guidance, is left simply with the residual knowledge that using the technology wrongly could potentially have terrible consequences, even if they're not sure what those consequences might be.  Hence: ritual.

Rituals (and traditions) are what protects them from these harmful consequences.  "We do it this way, because this is the way that we know is safe" quickly becomes "We do it this way because that's how we've always done it", which itself becomes "If you don't do it this way, you are a dangerous heretek and will be destroyed and your remains turned into a lobotomized servitor drone".

But if all this has given you the impression that I think the Adeptus Mechanicus is a bunch of retarded children, let me correct that idea.  Remember what I said in the last bit?  The technology they're handling is phenomenally complex: some complex, in fact, that they need AIs that are forbidden by ancient decree to use it safely outside the context of ritual.  Perhaps we should go back to my car.

I can take my car apart and probably put it back together.  From that process I will learn a great deal about how the car works, but not everything.  With time, experiment and much effort, I will probably, eventually, understand about 90% of how the car works, but some bits of it will simply be beyond me.  And that's how the Adeptus Mechanicus operates.  They dissect and examine and study their technology to a sub-atomic level, learning about it and identifying its many layers of redundancy.  From that, they build up a highly-accurate model and idea about how it works and also how to build and maintain machines and other items based upon the original "standard" item.  But although they may be able to replicate it to a degree, there may still be elements of the most advanced technology that the human mind simply can't grasp unaided.

This leads us to understand their obsession with bionics and augmentation, too.

They yearn to become more like the Machine, not merely out of some slavish obsession with metal but because their secret doctrines teach that the Machine possesses the capacity to understand things beyond the reach of the human.  Hence, something like the Rite of Pure Thought, in which areas of the brain usually processing instinct and emotion are "cleared" and replaced with additional processing capacity.  The brain begins to approach the level of the AI, giving the subject of the Rite the capacity to grasp concepts that previously would have been beyond him (or her).

Contemplations of the Machine

There is a general sense within the fan community of the Warhammer 40,000 background (henceforth to be known as the 40kverse) that the Adeptus Mechanicus is somehow inept or ignorant.

And it is, but not in the way that most people expect.

Exactly how things panned out in the Age of Technology, thousands of years before the Imperium was forged from mankind's ruins by the Emperor, is impossible to say for sure.  But there can be little doubt that technology reached a level of sophistication impossible to imagine today.

John C. Wright's "Golden Age" novels describe, with a level of artistry far beyond my maegre skill, the sort of technological state we can expect to achieve in ten millennia, even allowing for periods of ignorance, war, cataclysm and suchlike.  Coincidentally - or not: your choice - John's vision picks up on a theme first proposed by Isaac Asimov in "I, Robot" and echoed by Arthur C. Clarke in "3001: A Final Odyssey": the idea that human technology will reach a point where we need artificial intelligence to run it, because the interactions of its individual components exceed the ability of humans to comprehend.

This isn't so far fetched.  Even today, when a PC ceases to function, it is almost impossible to identify precisely where the fault has occurred.  Processes exist to rectify faults, but are applied in a "scattergun" fashion designed to fix a myriad of possible flaws, with no way of knowing which caused the fault.  More likely, by far, is that we simply dispose of the faulty technology and start afresh.  I, along with millions of others, sit down to work everyday with no more than the vaguest idea of how it operates.

Even my car is beyond my comprehension.  If my bicycle breaks down, I can identify the fault by eye, even though I'm not a bicycle mechanic.  I may not possess the tools, ability or experience to fix it as quickly as my local bicycle shop, but I can confidently walk in and point to whatever has broken, because its workings are well within the ability of a reasonably intelligent, spatial mind to understand (my wife, on the other hand, can't - despite being far smarter than I am, any problem that involves a spatial element is beyond her).  But whilst I understand the principles that underpin the operation of an internal-combustion engine and could probably take one apart and maybe - with lots of trial and error - put it back together, my car isn't just its engine.  It contains a baffling array of technology: gears, lights, suspension, air conditioning, anti-theft devices and more.  And being a pretty cheap car, built way back in 2001, it's nothing like as clever as the top-of-the-range Mercedes and Audis with their diagnotic computers, GPS and flappy-paddle gearboxes.  Even the mechanics don't understand them: they just plug in their computers and look at the pretty pictures!

So the idea of humans combining technologies of such sophistication that we need artificial intelligences to tell us how they work should not seem too strange at all.

If the Imperium is built upon the foundations of such a society (and there's no reason to think that it isn't), then it has an extra difficulty with which to contend: it has a ban on artificial intelligence or, at least, on artificial intelligence that's more intelligent than its human masters.  So we should not be surprised to discover that even the greatest of technological minds struggles to understand the interaction of technologies that previous relied upon the use of super-advanced AIs to operate.

The Cult Mechanicus has devised a highly-functional alternative to the artificial intelligences that are denied to them: ritual and tradition.  In my next post, I'll look at how these might serve to assist the Adeptus in maintaining its fragile hold upon the technology of the past.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Nothing to see here, citizens. Move along...

This blog is for me to ponder elements of the Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 universe, as I tend to think better with my fingers than I do with my head: a typical trait of writers, or so I'm told.

Anyway, once I work something out to my satisfaction, I'll probably write it down here.