cars

PEDANTRY

SPECU-CRANK: ENERGY CRISIS

I’m going to address an issue which is sufficiently abstract and pedantic that it may be too persnickety even for the pages of CRANK: the energy economy of pretty much every popular science fiction TV series or film makes no sense at all. 

To begin with the most notorious example, the villains of THE MATRIX are a race of ruthless hyper-intelligent machines who can only survive by harvesting the energy produced by the remnants of the human race, who have been imprisoned in endless arrays of slimy pods for this purpose. This is impossible, because human bodies don’t actually generate energy: they merely convert the energy contained in the food they eat—whether this be nutritious quinoa salads, chocolate, caffeine, or the unpleasant black goo made from rendered-down cadavers which is fed to the Matrix’s inhabitants—into other forms, such as body heat, daydreams and internet arguments. Moreover, humans are very inefficient converters of energy, and a large fraction of their caloric input is dissipated in the form of farts, indigestion and bad dreams, or stored on the hips and belly, and would thus be unavailable for use by evil AIs. It should also be remembered that these evil AIs must be devoting a substantial fraction of the energy generated by their captives to powering the computers maintaining a simulation of Sydney in 1999, chasing Morpheus around with those squid robot things, and pumping black goo back into the pods, not to mention all the wasteful lightning crackling off the big pod towers. Lastly, I note that the paragon of humanity in this scenario was Neo himself, and that even if the aforementioned items in the debit ledger were to be ignored, it still seems unlikely that a high standard of machine civilisation could be maintained using the leftover wattage from Keanu Reeves.

You may object that THE MATRIX is an exception: a triumph of style over substance, an inept hybrid of vulgar Marxism and stoner paranoia which shouldn’t be used to indict an entire genre. But it is not the only example.

In endless films, aliens invade our solar system in search of fresh resources, having used up their own home worlds: in a handful of others, with a somewhat firmer grounding in psychological realism, humans bridge the gulf of interstellar space to steal resources from aliens. The problem with this scenario is that interstellar space is so mind-bogglingly enormous that if you have the wherewithal to up and haul your civilisation across the light years between the stars, you obviously don’t have a resource problem. Earth’s colonial history is not a sound guide to the challenge of travelling to even the closest stars. Try imagining if the Atlantic Ocean were millions, rather than thousands, of kilometres wide. And even if, as you may object, some kind of warp drive could make the journey faster, any imaginable technology capable of faster-than-light travel requires either vast energy inputs or technology so far in advance of ours that it would also solve any crisis you are trying to fix with an interstellar trip.

The same goes for that subset of films in which interstellar expeditions are mounted to find rare commodities or ingredients. Many people were annoyed at the plot of AVATAR being driven by a quest for a substance giving the snidely lazy name “unobtainium”; your author, by contrast, was annoyed by the fact that the rest of the galaxy is made out of the same sort of stuff as our solar system, and that an interstellar expedition to find this MacGuffinite would almost certainly be more expensive than just making it one atom at a time in a particle accelerator.

Conversely, no matter how desperate and grinding a science fiction dystopia gets, there is always, it seems, a surplus of capital to be devoted to high-tech fighting arenas, elaborate costumes, futuristic robot-police and high-speed snow-piercing trains. The worst example of this is found in the MAD MAX films, which posit a world in which oil is more precious than gold, but also in which the main leisure activity consists of driving ferociously around the outback in cars and trucks with very poorly-tuned engines. In reality, a world where oil is more precious than gold would feature much less thrilling forms of transport, like pack animals or bicycles.

Even the rebooted BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, justly celebrated for its gritty and dark sf vision, still scores badly in this regard. If an army of sexy robots is pursuing the desperate remnant of humanity through interstellar space, the desperate remnant of humanity is going to run out of fuel first, simply because the sexy robots don’t need to waste resources on air, food, gardens or overheated political intrigues which exactly mirror those of 2000s America. Unless, of course, the sexy robots are squandering their budget on bikini waxes, facial peels and hair salons. It’s worth noting that BSG is one of the only shows to even address this problem, in an episode which focuses on an industrial dispute on the fleet’s “refinery”, but it’s also worth noting that this was a really embarrassingly bad episode which seemed to be constructed from the writers’ high-school memories of Cannery Row rather than any knowledge of actual workplace relations.

Perhaps the flaws in these fantastic universes are echoes or dim reflections of the wealthy parts of a global economy, in which the labour done to produce iPhones and cheap clothes is kept from our sight, in which the effects of our own real energy economy are having permanent effects on climate and which, as a society, we seem hopelessly unable to grapple with. Either that, or they are the symptom of one man devoting his own surplus energy to ruining his own ability to enjoy harmless, escapist entertainment. I hope it’s the latter.

MIKE LYNCH, SYDNEY

An early steampunk-themed storyboard for THE MATRIX. Neo (centre); Trinity (lower right); evil AI, tending human-powered battery pods (lower left); concentrated human woes, etc. The telephone system of Melbourne . Wood engraving, engraved by F A Sleap. Published 1 September, 1890, Melbourne, by David Syme & Co. State Library of Victoria, accession no. IAN01/09/90/8.

An early steampunk-themed storyboard for THE MATRIX. Neo (centre); Trinity (lower right); evil AI, tending human-powered battery pods (lower left); concentrated human woes, etc.The telephone system of Melbourne. Wood engraving, engraved by F A Sleap. Published 1 September, 1890, Melbourne, by David Syme & Co. State Library of Victoria, accession no. IAN01/09/90/8.

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REPROACH

SPECU-CRANK: WHY US WORDS LESS AFTER BIG BAD TIME

You know how it goes. A huge meteor hits earth (thus becoming a meteorite), or perhaps a zombie plague brings us to the brink of extinction. Maybe an environmental catastrophe sees us the forlorn custodians of a desert planet, or a mysterious electromagnetic pulse wipes out nearly all our technology and forces us to loot supermarkets and sift through all our garbage dumps for useful implements.

What happens next? The surviving survivors fight each other for survival, racing around after each other in souped-up cars instead of saving all that petrol to light the BBQ on which to cook the non-survivors for dinner. Sometime we band together against adversity—in these situations, we often return to some kind of semi-agrarian-semi-hunter-gatherer-type lifestyle, often with a bit of new religion thrown in for good measure. Men grow beards (even in some movie versions); women apparently still don’t grow leg hair despite a general lack of razors and waxing establishments. People are dirtier, tougher, better with guns.

And also, often, our language devolves. We use fewer words, and string them together in less and less sophisticated ways. We sound more like children learning to talk (though frequently much less inventive). We say things like ‘tomorrow-morrow land’ (Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome) and ‘true truth’ (Cloud Atlas).

Now, why should this be? There is no particular evidence to suggest that the Vikings or the Romans or the Picts or any ancient nomads or hunters or farmers had childish language, despite their lack of choice in upholstery fabrics, fusion engines and mobile phones.

Sure, we may need fewer words to describe caffeinated beverages in the future (though I bet we hold onto that last bastion of civilization for as long as we can), but we will probably need more words to describe various types of pox, different kinds of blasted earth (glows in the dark, burns, sentient, stinks of death etc), and of course not forgetting the words we’ll need to describe those indescribable alien invaders who look like nothing we’ve ever seen before.

Language changes, but there is no reason to suppose a “simpler” life results in a simpler language. Even the idea of what constitutes a “simple” life is suspect. Is a simple life one where your daily goal is not to die of starvation, cold, tetanus or mutant bear bite, or one where you aim to reach your daily Fitbit goal of 10,000 steps?

Our relationships will also remain complex and precarious—a failure to observe protocol and cultural norms may be less likely to cause us to be passed over for a promotion and more likely to result in death. What advantage would there be to reducing our ability to express our connections and relationships? Absolutely none. So unless we are being forced to reduce our vocabulary and grammatical complexity by fascist overlords (1984), I see no reason for it to occur. Using simple language to indicate “simpler” times is lazy. And also annoying. [1] Don’t do it.

ALICE CANNON, MELBOURNE

  1. I mean seriously, those kids in Beyond Thunderdome were more annoying than Ewoks.
Try describing THIS post-apocalyptic scenario with only a handful of nouns and even fewer adjectives.  A monster Easter egg , halftone print, published by David Syme & Co, Melbourne, 1 May 1896. State Library of Victoria, IAN01/05/96/12.

Try describing THIS post-apocalyptic scenario with only a handful of nouns and even fewer adjectives. A monster Easter egg, halftone print, published by David Syme & Co, Melbourne, 1 May 1896. State Library of Victoria, IAN01/05/96/12.

CRANK fans! Have you pre-ordered your copy of Materiality: SURFACE? You can do so at the pinknantucket press Pozible campaign page, until 21 September! Sign up to be a subscriber, friend or patron and also receive our annual CRANK zine!

UNSOLICITED ADVICE

GET YOUR FOOT OFF IT

What with all the talk about traffic congestion and ways to combat it by walking/windsurfing/levitating to work and back, as opposed to driving, I thought I would chime in with what I feel is a major contribution to the current problem with traffic in built up areas (and hopefully throw in a few James Joycian sentences into the mix {with maybe a touch more punctuation}): the automatic transmission.

Automatic transmissions in cars have been with us for a long time now (since before WWII) but are now used at an unprecedented level. My main gripe with the device is that for the most part (particularly with a ‘slush-box’ {torque converter} as opposed to the relatively new ‘dual clutch’ devices) when one takes their foot off the accelerator the centrifugal clutch engages, causing the car to coast. The sensation appears to cause most drivers to feel the need to apply the brake instead.

This incessant use of the brake pedal causes drivers behind the aforementioned drivers to apply their brake pedal in sympathy, causing a flow-on effect of brake use to greater or lesser degrees of effectiveness. This contributes immensely to the ‘worm’ or ‘slinky’ effect found on major thoroughfares where traffic ends up stopped for no adequately explored reason than people driving with their foot constantly feathering the brake to make up for the lack of compression braking that is part and parcel of the manual transmission. This is particularly true of cars travelling downhill, even on gentle declines.

Please remember that as well as ‘D’ mode you have at least a ‘1’ and ‘2’ as well. You paid for the blessed things; use them—especially down hills! These wonderful, much maligned slots on your gear stick can be used to overcome the lack of compression braking and allow you to adequately decelerate or maintain steady velocity on declines without using the brakes and causing consternation to those behind you. Traffic times would be decimated (in the literal sense), I feel, by this act alone. These modes can be used effectively going uphill, also.

Those of you bleating about fuel efficiency when using ‘1’ or ‘2’ due to higher engine speeds can rest assured that if you don’t have your foot on the throttle, you aren’t using fuel (at least not appreciably any more fuel), even if the motor is revving its head off. Modern motors like to rev; you aren’t going to break it. You are being more fuel efficient in a lower gear at higher revs with part throttle going up a hill as you are in a higher gear at lower revs at full throttle.

That said I’m off to get into my new, automatic car.

R FRANZKE, MELBOURNE

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