Interstellar: First Impressions

Don’t worry, I haven’t come here to moan about scientific inaccuracies. In fact, I’m here to analyze why I liked Interstellar in spite of it’s inaccuracies. And boy were there problems with this movie. There were bits that felt way off key, like the exploration of love as a transcendent metaphysical bond. There were moments when I was jarred from immersion, such as the Endurance falling out of orbit when Mann crashed the Ranger into it, or the frivolous astrogation (“If we slingshot around this neutron star here…”), or LITERALLY EVERYTHING ABOUT THE BLACK HOLE.

Honestly, Interstellar does one type of science fiction well – using speculative science and technology as a foil for exploring contemporary issues (like the changing of textbooks to say the moon missions were faked. That was an interesting addition). For the first half of the movie, I thought it was pretty hard sci-fi, but I eventually realized it was a little bit softer; overall, it fell somewhere between Star Trek and 2001 (I know, not a very helpful range). So my intense desire for scientific accuracy fell by the wayside.

It focuses on a wide range of topics: man’s relationship with nature, the need for an exploratory drive (and the fragility of that same drive as a cultural artifact), the nature of time in human relationships, and unfortunately something about love and gravity. Because it hit this wide range of topics, it seemed a little unfocused, although the movie was long enough to say something meaningful about each.

I might be giving the movie a more generous pass because it looked and felt fantastic. The range of sound was stupendous, and the use of sound was spot on. The movie does not twist itself for sound, sound plays to the movie. What do I mean by this? The rumble of the engines overpowers dialogue, non-diegetic sound abruptly cuts off with the end of a transmission, and Matt Damon gets blown up mid-sentence. And, of course, external shots of the spacecraft have no sound, and inside the spacecraft you can hear the thump of the thrusters. I was a little disappointed at how quite the inside was when the engine were off, though. By all accounts, space habitats are quite loud due to the constant fans and other machinery that make the space livable.

I feel like much of the movie walked the line between freaking awesome and too unrealistic. For instance, the giant waves on the first planet. Sure, there were huge tidal forces. But aren’t waves formed by wind, not tides? Also, why wasn’t there a huge back current in the spaces between them? Whatever, this is a severe case of Fridge Logic. Oh and the bit where everyone died from the black hole’s radiation and tidal forces (hint, this didn’t actually happen). I enjoyed all the graphics of the spacecraft though, and I found it very interesting to be able to identify what elements came from where (both actual and concept designs).

The biggest part of the movie that was completely unrealistic was the black hole, but this is OK. One of the points of speculative fiction is to change one thing about the universe and see how it plays out. In the case of Interstellar, the change was that gravity is actually magic. Basically. So you can’t fault them for having a magical black hole.

But the ending was very awesome, although I almost died from the whiplash. Like 2001, the movie just suddenly decided to go all trippy on us. Which I didn’t mind. I totally saw the whole “the 5th dimensional beings are actually transcended humans from the future” thing coming though. I also have a kickass theory about that part: the robot talking to Connors in the black is actually the 5th dimensional humans communicating with him, not the robot.

Ultimately the best way to describe Interstellar is that Gravity and Inception had a baby, and it didn’t inherit the awful movie gene from Gravity. So go see it.

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Interstellar Colonization Will Never Happen

There really isn’t an economical explanation for why a civilization would engage in long-range interstellar colonization.

To begin with, though, let’s look at interplanetary colonization. Why, for example, would someone fund the establishment of a permanent colony on Mars with the intent for it to become eventually self-sustaining? It’s not to relieve population pressure. Stuff is so ridiculously expensive to get into space that you’d be better off (from a monetary perspective) paying the people to live in the Sahara. It’s not for resources; asteroid mining is almost certainly a feasible economic opportunity, but the cost of lifting resources into orbit is again the obvious barring factor. It could be scientific, but scientific missions wouldn’t need to be self-sustaining or long-term. Perhaps a stint of 20 years on the surface. It could be done by a separatist group (plenty of people want to go start small settlements in the wilderness), but even if the money was raised (which is unlikely), the colony will lie on the fringes of human society. They would probably be unable to arrange a return trip, even if they wanted to, and nobody else (except more fringe groups) would want to continue colonization.

There is one argument that seems reasonable: outposts could serve as refueling stations for outbound craft (asteroid mining operations, etc). However, it would make more sense to pull these resources from asteroids and place an automated fuel refinery in high orbit around Mars (or other suitable candidate).

Many of the reasons listed above carry over to interstellar missions. The only difference is that groups would have much more trouble raising money for the mission, and that now lifting stuff into orbit isn’t the only tough part, but also accelerating your spaceship to a speed which makes for a bearable trip length.

Here are some scenarios where we do send a colonizing mission: we discover evidence of alien life, or the ruins of an alien civilization. It would only make sense to send a colonizing mission. Sending a scientific detachment with a planned return trip would be so expensive that it wouldn’t be worth it. I mean, it would be worth it, but nobody would be able to raise the funds.

Another scenario in which most of the above arguments go out the window: we build a space elevator. That removes the gateway for getting into orbit. We could expect many more people accessing and living in orbit (because they feel like it and the price is low enough). Once the population already flying around the solar system reaches a critical mass, colonizing Mars becomes a trivial step.

ADDENDUM

Actually, it came to me after I wrote this post that there may be one reasonable explanation for colonizing Mars: if we fail to find an economical way to increase biomass production either on Earth or in space, we will need large tracts of arable land. Terraforming Mars would provide this. However, the cost of lifting and storing that biomass may make it less preferable to aerocultures in orbit.

Interstellar Travel

The most important part of writing science fiction is laying down a set of rules which stays constant throughout the book. In A Fire Upon the Deep (aFUtD), there was hyperwave, anti-gravity, hyperspace, and the Zones. In The Mote in God’s Eye (tMiGE), there were only two pieces of technology which violated physics: the Alderson Drive and Langston Field. Each was defined very clearly. Nothing is more infuriating than when an author saves the day with a previously undisplayed loophole.

Cover of A Fire Upon the Deep

The interesting thing about tMiGE is the interstellar travel. Scifi authors usually couple FTL travel with FTL communications; in tMiGE, the only way to send a message to another star system in a timely manner is to send a messenger ship. In addition, jumps between systems can only be made from specific points within each system, determined by the mass of the star and the arrangement of surrounding systems. aFUtD uses a similarly interesting, but completely different, device. Starships in the Beyond make micro-jumps, instantaneously jumping between two points in space and then calculating the next jump. This means that to go faster you just need more computing power. Systems built for different regions of the Beyond work differently; a bottom-lugger isn’t as fast as a state-of-the-art battleship except close to the Slow Zone.

In the fictional world I’ve been developing through a short story, interstellar travel is also interesting. Like tMiGE, the only way to go faster than light is with a spaceship. In my universe, ships have a minimum size requirement; messenger probes are out of the question. An interstellar drive has two parts: the ring, and the spikes. The ring manipulates space, flattening the local regions of the universe around the ship. While in theory a ring could be any size (bigger rings make bigger fields in a not quite linear fashion), it would lack control and have a tendency to fall into gravity fields. That’s why a ship needs spikes. Spikes are long, thin sensors that monitor the properties of the universe in small regions of space. They help the ring avoid massive bodies, correct for small spatial inconsistencies, and deactivate in the correct place. The more spikes a ship has, the safer and more precise it is. The higher quality a ring a ship has, the faster it can go. A ship that was too small wouldn’t be able to avoid planetary bodies or have a large enough detection field to navigate in flattened space. Ok, so maybe there is a little bit of Handwavium. But not THAT much.

You may be wondering: if the spikes hold sensors, why not just make a bigger spacecraft and imbed the sensors within the hull? Good question, reader. The answer is: you could. That is, if you are filthy rich. Rich people sometimes drive crazy cars and build crazy buildings, so certainly some people would make stylish spacecraft. At the end of the day, though, your spaceship is still occupying the same volume of space. It uses more sensors (unless you want minute pockets within your spaceship to expand and explode), and it only gives so much more interior space. It masses more, which means more energy or fuel to boost it through regular space. Spaceships aren’t like cars, either. Stylish lines are going to count for very little; even space stations don’t have windows, and nobody uses video to navigate. The result is that most spaceships are spheres inside a forest of spikes. Not very romantic, is it?

Mass is going to be the limiting factor on spaceship size. Unless you have very expensive spikes, you are still going to redimensionalize hundreds of thousands of miles from your target. You need some sort of in-system propulsion system. Since it is impractical to put a high-powered propulsion system aboard an already too-small ship, most spaceships would use local services: tugboats. Even obscure areas could afford one or two spacecraft with excellent traditional drives that can ferry interstellar craft around in cubic space. This also solves the problem of giving interstellar craft big dangerous drives that create exhaust. Except for military ships, redimensionalizing craft wouldn’t run the risk of toasting someone behind them. Military ships would be the exception; your enemies aren’t going to help you invade their system, so you need your own engines. On the other hand, military ships would be significantly different already. Most attack ships would be gigantic; they need to carry ship-board weapons, planetary craft, and a propulsion system. Military ships also carry prized interstellar equipment; governments are going to outfit their fleet with the finest rings and spikes.

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