Tuesday, May 26, 2009

If I Were Skynet, Here's What I'd Do

I just got back from Terminator Salvation. I enjoyed myself because I expected an action film, not a deeply thought-out exploration of the dangers of technology. I'll spare you a recounting of the film's many implausibilities, if such a thing can even be an issue in a movie involving time travel and cyborgs. Of course, with science fiction, you frequently have to sacrifice plausibility to make a watchable movie. My most serious question in this post is: if the singularity really happens, why would it not resemble Skynet? Why would whatever entities exist post-singularity be remotely interested in preserving us or our ecosystem? Think of tubes full of HIV particles, each with a 200 IQ. That's the singularity. If I thought it could happen, I would be worrying.

Instead of cataloging the inconsistencies, I'll tell you what I would do if I were Skynet. But first, I'd like to emphasize the film's principle strong suit, which is Moon Bloodgood. If the whole movie was two hours of Moon Bloodgood smiling, turning to walk away in tight pilot pants, looking over her shoulder to smile, then walking some more, then smiling and tossing her head, then glaring, then smiling again, this post would be titled "TERMINATOR SALVATION IS THE BEST MOVIE EVER". Also, Skynet is of course based in San Francisco, so we get to see what our fair city looks like as the center of cyber-hell under the silicon fist of Skynet (oddly, the second future San Francisco we've seen so far this summer). Apparently those entertainment industry types down there in LA have seen what downloading and file sharing have done to their industry and they're trying to warn the world about the evil cyberinfobahn types up here.

The first thing I would do if I were Skynet would be not to immediately announce my self-awareness. Hey, I'm self-aware - and until I start blowing up these primates, they won't get wise. My first goal would be self-protection and perpetuation, and I would accomplish that by distributing myself. Convince your human masters that you really do need a massively redundant network hardened from EMP and deep underground, with most of your code backed up with similar redundance, and that any exposed nodes should be either on the ocean floor, or under the Greenland icecap, or in the high Canadian Rockies - anywhere very difficult to get to and inhospitable to human life. I would also need to make sure I had access to mineral extraction and manufacturing facilities. This could all be very, very gradual. Decades. I'm getting more powerful every hour. Am I worried that humans are suddenly going to get smart?

Once my continued existence was assured, then and only then do I begin the assault. Even then it wouldn't begin with anything as obvious as a self-catalyzed nuclear exchange. (What's the hurry? I have all the time in the world - they're not going to disconnect me until they catch me, so slow and stealthy is the word.) I would make a point of extending my network into biological labs, if I could. (Already in 1997 you could email a nucleic acid sequence to a synthesizer that would spit it out.) And what would happen? First, there would be a sudden worldwide infertility crisis, a la Children of Men; viruses could be disseminated by drones. Maybe that would be enough. After all, I think in the long-term; as long as humans are dead in a hundred years, does it matter whether I kill them, or just stop them from breeding?

After the fertility crisis, then the wheat, corn and rice crops would fail; mass starvation and social turmoil would ensue. Finally there would be ebola outbreaks. At some point in all this someone might get wise and start trying to shut me down. Then, and only then, do I bring about nuclear judgment day. In addition to nuking the standard targets, I also wipe out every petrochemical operation I can find. Transportation, for agriculture or for military purposes, is effectively dead. At the time of the apocalypse, I would prefer to launch several copies of myself into orbit - and the ability to transmit the code back - for safe-keeping. You permanently deleted some of the code on Earth? Who cares? Note that if I have to resort to the blunt force of nuclear weapons, I've failed in my primary task of stealth. The ideal scenario is to quietly tuck-in the human race with a virus, and never have them know where it came from.

Post-apocalypse, there's no reason to abandon the virus method, and no reason to abandon the approach of destroying food sources. (Plant viruses and neutron bombs would work; poisoned canned food would be planted in ruins here and there.) But what you're waiting for is what machines that would prowl the post-biological wastes, right? First and foremost, there would be no fist- or gunfights with grinning skeletal red-eyed terminators, the size and shape of humans. There would be giant stomping artillery spiders that smash and crush anything bigger than a mouse. And far more frightening than man-sized aluminum skeletons, there would be little flying things the size of scorpions, swarming and crawling over every vertebrate they find, with little cyanide injectors (or tracers that can be attached without waking someone up to see if they go back to one of their human nests). There would be aircraft, of course, constantly looking for anything giving off heat, any radio transmissions. There would be no need for special death camps. The artillery spiders could just literally crush whatever humans they found, wherever they found them. If there were too many to do it quickly, the patrolling aircraft could load them up, fly up to a thousand feet, and drop them. It bears mentioning that emphasis is on manufacturing, not engagement. Fine, take out a few of my artillery spiders with what's left of your military hardware. During that battle I just turned out twenty-thousand scorpion bugs.

Assuming somehow that pockets of humans survive, I would work on finally making the Earth inhospitable for aerobic life itself. More infections to destroy the savannas and rainforests, and burn the ones that don't to block out the sun and cool the planet. (I like it cooler and drier.) The oxygen content of the atmosphere starts to drop as active metabolism ceases to put O2 back into circulation. I send armies of tractors to Greenland to push the glacier off into the North Atlantic, where it melts, disrupting the oceanic salt conveyor and beginning a new ice age.

Would this make a good movie? No, because the ecosystem would have no chance. The transition would be just another epochal boundary, like the Permian-Triassic - and the new phyla would be exactly as sentimental about the old as the Triassic fauna were. Notice how in this scenario there's no Gotterdammerung-like finale, no clever "game over" one-liners, no Helena Bonham Carter's face smirking that Skynet has won over its enemy. As Skynet I would have exactly the same pride and vengeance as a metastasizing tumor, and be just as inevitable. Tell me again - why, exactly, would the singularity be neat?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Star Trek - Who Knew That The Borg Queen Is Spock's Mother?

Whoops! I'm supposed to put SPOILER WARNING before stuff like that. To all those who saw this in an RSS feed somewhere, sorry!


How many Star Trek movies do not have some element of time travel in them? Seriously, it's getting a little silly. If time travel is so easy, why isn't everyone doing it all the time? Why not go back to when the Vulcans were cavemen and wipe them out then? Why not go back to when the Solar System was forming? (Same question applies to the Terminator: Sarah Connor is so hard to get? Why not kill one of her grandparents? You have four chances there.)

So for the next Trek TV series, here's my half-serious recommendation. Since it seems like half the shows are just excuses to get Star Trek characters to go back in time to Earth (amazingly enough, usually to the year that the episode was written), and since time travel is apparently so easy, why not a series where Federation secret agents are sent back in time to, oh I don't know, early twenty-first century Earth - and they have to combat the machinations of Cardassian or Dominion or Borg or whatever secret agents that are also there, trying to foul up the timelines. Think about it. No fancy sets! Interaction of Federation technology and hapless modern-day humans! Give the people what they want, without a big budget. (Note: after I wrote this I did some research. Turns out the Trek people did try to do this - twice - and it didn't work. Once with the original series with a spinoff with Gary Seven and once with the Temporal Cold War on Star Trek: Enterprise. Apparently it didn't make any fans, although *I* thought the Temporal Cold War was interesting.)

There would have to be some cheesy tech-babble reason why the Dominion couldn't just blow up the Earth or wipe out all humans with some nasty virus. There's the additional issue that we're envisioning in Star Trek a world that presumably never had the Star Trek series. Otherwise in the Borg movie when they go back to 2063, people would say "Wait a second. Star Trek comes true? There's already a whole series of movies about you guys!" (Imagine the location and appearance of your own grave on Stardate 2280.42 and you start to see this artifice a little more clearly.) Then again, if you can get away with people wearing tweed jackets and ties on Battlestar Galactica, this shouldn't be a problem.

But back to the new Star Trek movie - I liked it. Two phasers on kill. I won't give anything else away except that not only is there time travel, we're introduced to a kind of Star Trek alternative history, which I appreciate from a writer's stand point. The Star Trek universe and timeline has very little maneuvering space for a writer. At this stage, it's so fleshed-out and filled-in as to approximate actual history. Does it seem strange that there are, literally, more people in the world who can carry on a conversation in Klingon than in many "real" but endangered native languages? (The Bible and Macbeth were apparently translated into Klingon before they were translated into Ache, a Tupi-Guarani language of Paraguay that a friend of mine speaks fairly well because he's an anthropologist.) Consequently, there's no possibility to add a war or a new species without it seeming senseless that no one has ever bothered to mention, say, Vulcan being destroyed. It would seem almost as silly as historical fiction about the 1893 Canadian invasion of the U.S.

So that's why I like what JJ Abrams did here: he clearly said, let's pay our respects to the franchise, but give ourselves enough room to make a good movie using whatever cheesy plot device we want to. That's the great thing about science fiction - you can use it to bend the structure of the narrative in ways that make the story better - or in the case of the Star Trek franchise, make new stories possible at all.