Steampunk Lego Nautilus

Today one of my buddies showed me a tentative Lego set with captain Nemo, the submarine Nautilus and other stuff from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, though visually based on the old Disney movie. It is currently a project proposal at Lego’s website and it needs a few more supporting clicks before Lego considers manufacturing it.

Check it out here — link >>>


Life in the Dark Energy Biosphere

Far below the ocean floors there are chthonic aquifers in which hitherto unknown microbes prosper thanks to their ability to “breathe” sulfates. Scientists and engineers at the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations at the University of Southern California have developed probes that descend to the seafloor and drill sealed holes through the sediments down to water-carrying rock layers. There they have collected samples of yet-unclassified microorganisms that flourish in that peculiar environment despite its lack of oxygen and light.

Here is yet another proof of how life finds ways of adapting to hostile environments; a comforting thought when I look with hopeful eyes at the barren Mars. Take a look at the picture below and read more here — link >>>

Space 1889: Microcosmic Adventures

Microscopic man is an idea that been used many times in science fiction, both humorously and seriously. The basic concept is that a person is miniaturized to a fraction of his normal size. He enters into a new and strange version of the ordinary world with many new dangers and problems. Miniaturization adventures are plausible within the context of the Space 1889 game universe. A scientist has made a marvellous discovery and the player characters end up being shrunk and have get out of that predicament. This article outlines three miniaturization technologies and two microscopic adventure settings.

Since a star traveller is called an astronaut, a person that journeys into the microcosmos ought to be be called a micronaut.

The game master must first decide on which methods will be used to miniaturize micronauts and how small they will become. Her choice is based on the requirements of the adventure.

Miniaturization rays: A device focuses miniaturization rays on an object to shrink it to desired size. The process is nearly instantaneous. The maximum miniaturization is one millionth of normal size. The duration is a number of hours equal to the reliability. (The time limit will usually put the players under stress: their task must be finished in time. It could also serve as an escape: if the characters survive long enough, they will automatically regain normal size.)

Shrinkfield emitter: The micronauts themselves alter the size of their bodies and nearby objects with a portable device, emitting a cryptomagnetic shrinkfield, to fit their needs. Everything within the field’s range is affected simultaneously and to the same degree. The alteration process is almost instantaneous. Greatest miniaturization is one millionth of normal size. The field’s radius is up to 10 feet × the reliability, modified for proportion. (If the emitter is at 1/1000 of its original size, its range is also 1/1000 of the normal.) The emitter has a finite energy supply, limiting the number of size alterations to its reliability rating. After that, it must be recharged by a power source when at normal size. The users can always return to normal size by shutting it off.

Cloning: Miniature body clones are bio-engineered from human genetic codes. The minimum size of the clone is 1/100 of the normal. The scientist must have some small pieces of skin and muscle tissue from the person being on which the clone is based. It takes about one week to make a clone. The mind is then transferred to the miniature by a mind-transfer device, while the normal body is put in suspended animation. The process takes about one hour. When the human wishes to return to his normal body, the process is simply reversed.

The characters are on a mercy mission. They voyage by submarine into a person’s blood system to save his life, e.g. by surgically removing a blood clot in his brain, by fighting some unknown ravaging parasite, or by installing some miraculous prosthetic device. The micronauts should use miniaturization rays or a shrinkfield emitter to achieve the necessary bacterial size.

The host body may turn out to contain many dangers: The vessel could get off course and the characters be forced to find an alternate route to their destination. Some routes are very dangerous, like passing through the heart. The submarine could suffer from malfunctions, forcing the players to improvise with the available equipment to get on to their destination. If the micronauts face unknown parasites, these may be more dangerous and intelligent than previously imagined. If the miniaturization effect lasts only a limited time, the micronauts are in a hurry and must get out of the body before they and the submarine regain normal size.

It could be interesting to send the micronauts into an alien creature’s body. The mission need not be to save its life. Instead, the characters could be sent to investigate the strange organism. The advantage of this scenario is that the game master can create many interesting challenges for the players inside the organism. Its immune system and organs may be very alien and it may contain unknown and dangerous parasites, symbionts, and substances. (James White’s many short-stories about a space hospital may perhaps give some ideas. He provides descriptions of many aliens suffering from equally alien diseases.)

In this type of adventures, the micronauts depend completely on their equipment to survive. Since their size (including their molecular structures) is perhaps one millionth of the normal, their bodies cannot handle normal-sized molecules. They must bring along enough miniaturized air, water, and food. They travel in some kind of submarine through the body fluids. It should be equipped with a drill, either mechanical or using energy rays, to be able to penetrate tissue. (Do not worry about damaging the host’s body; the “drill wounds” will be minuscule.) A micronaut must have diving gear when operating outside the vessel.

There is usually no problem acquiring necessary equipment before “departure”, since micronauts can use “ordinary” items that are miniaturized together with them.

Organisms from the human immune system (e.g. white corpuscles) or parasites (e.g. bacteria) may be aggressive towards a micronaut. Such organisms usually fight by “suffocating”, poisoning or dissolving their enemies. However, the micronaut’s miniaturized molecular structure is hardly affected by normal poisons or solvents. He can be harmed by being crushed or deprived oxygen, though. And only the gamemaster knows how extraterrestrial micro-organisms affect micronauts.

When fighting in body fluids, ordinary projectile weapons are useless. Instead, a micronaut must wield an electric rifle or melee weapons.

The characters become test persons in a scientific project that searches for a way to enable more people to live off the limited land area. (Already in the late 19th century, there were dire predictions of run-away population growth.) They get mouse-size bodies (approximately scale 1:40), created by a cloning process, to investigate whether such small humans can survive in the wilderness. While the characters are in their miniature bodies, they get removed in some way from the project base. For instance, they could be snatched by birds-of-prey and deposited far away or drift away on a raft on stream. The characters end up in a dangerous world and forced to survive on their own, while finding their ways back to their base, where their ordinary bodies rest in suspended animation.

These micronauts have no problems with breathing, drinking or eating, since their bodies consist of normal-sized molecules. They can survive on nuts, roots and insects. Cats, foxes and birds of prey are lethal opponents, while mice and rabbits may be tamed and used as beasts of burden.

The climate may cause problems. The proportion between skin area and body mass is less advantageous for a micronaut, and he loses body heat fast when not properly dressed. A temperature that is merely uncomfortable to a normal-sized human may be dangerous to him.

The micronaut also has an advantage from the change of proportion. A mouse-sized creature survives a fall from any height, since the air resistance slows the descent speed to perhaps 15 ft/sec. A landing will be soft enough to avoid injuries.

The miniaturization process only affects the micronauts’ bodies and all equipment must be custom-made. A very skilled artisan can make ordinary objects as small as scale 1:1000, provided he has appropriate tools. However, a micronaut will likely have only a limited set of equipment due to high construction costs: the price of the original object multiplied by the scale. (Example: A telephone made in scale 1:40 costs £2 pounds × 40 = £80.)

The choice of weapons is limited. A gun, powerful enough to harm a target, has a recoil that will injure the user. Instead, micronauts will probably use melee weapons, e.g. spears and sprays, with strong poisons that will knock out or kill a living target. An electric rifle is also a possibility, though its effects should be limited. Its miniscule batteries cannot carry much charge, giving it quite a weak “punch”; perhaps its discharge would only blind or stun a cat or hawk.

A gamemaster with a taste for the eccentric may combine this type of scenario with ideas from Richard Adams’s Watership Down and Plague Dogs: maybe there are intelligent animals which the characters encounter and with whom they may cooperate to improve their survival chances. (Read also GURPS Bunnies & Burrows for inspiration.)

Neither Jules Verne nor H G Welles touched the subject of miniaturization, though they might well have done so. (The concept is probably very old; Jonathan Swift dealt with similar phenomena in Gulliver’s Travels, i.e. the realm of Lilliput.) To get inspiration the GM must therefore look to more modern versions of the theme. Here I mention some useful ones that I have read or watched over the years; there are of course many more. (A long list of such books and comics is located here: link >>>)

Miniaturization has been used in several movies, e.g. The Incredible Shrinking Man in the 1950s, Fantastic Voyage in the 1960s, and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Innerspace in the 1980s. The two older ones are serious, while the two recent are comedies.

Isaac Asimov wrote the novelization of Fantastic Voyage, which turned out to be better than the movie. Regrettably, he decided during the late 1980s to write a new, much thicker book, Destination Brain, on the same theme; it is so bad you should not bother with it. Both deal with micrometric “submarine” expeditions into a human body.

Around 1980, Gordon Williams published three novels about The Micronauts , in which a team of cloned centimetric micronauts is stranded in Earth’s wilderness. Soap-opera characters, but a reasonably good account for the milieu in which they struggle to survive.

Miniaturization ray generator: weight 1 ton; cost £1000; power *; research data Ether (33, 5)
Shrinkfield emitter: weight 40 lbs; cost £8000; power **; research data Ether (40, 5)
Miniature cloning: weight n/a; cost £5000¹; power n/a; research data Biochemistry (38, 5)
Mind-transfer device²: weight 1 ton; cost £500; power 1; research data Ether (38, 5)

*Power requirement is 1 point per ton of the object being miniaturized.
**The emitter has a finite energy supply, limiting the number of size alterations to its reliability rating. After that, it must be recharged by a electricity-generating power source when at normal size. The recharging process takes 1÷reliability hours.
¹ Cost is per clone.
² The mind-transfer device is necessary to “move” a person’s mind from his original body to his clone and vice versa.
n/a = not applicable

Copyright © 1996 Anders Blixt
Space: 1889 is Frank Chadwick’s registered trademark for his game of Victorian Era space-faring.

Mission to Innerspace

When I was a boy in the late 1960s, undersea exploration was almost as exciting as space travel. The French oceanographer and film-maker Jacques Cousteau, master of the research ship Calypso, was a weekly fixture in the Swedish TV schedule (merely two channels in those days).

Innerspace was one word coined for the dark vastness of the ocean depths, which were supposed to be colonized by man in “the near future”. However, the allure of the deep seas soon faded, partially because most of those ambitions turned out to be beyond the capabilities of available technology.

But the visions have not died fully — the third generation of the Cousteau clan is nowadays at work beneath the ocean with state-of-the art tech: link >>>

A 21st-century Cousteau endeavor.

“Fantastic Voyage” — the inner space of the cold war

I commute between home and office by subway, the only decent way of traveling in the downtown of the city in which I live. Half an hour each way with a book as company. Every now and then I choose some classic title for re-reading and currently I am into Isaac Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage.

It’s the Cold War, though the antagonists are called only Us and Them. A defecting top-notch scientist suffers a skull injury during the extraction and the only way of saving him is by micro-miniaturizing a research submarine, crewed by a brain surgeon and a few other specialists, injecting it into the scientist’s blood vessels and open a congested brain artery from the inside.

Asimov wrote the story as a novelization of a film manuscript. It was in the early 1960s, before the good doctor’s style deteriorated into meandering verbosity, and the composition is a combination of period action-adventure and whodunnit penned in an economical prose. The protagonist, the fairly hard-boiled spy Grant, is the expedition commander and has to deal with dangers inside the human body and the suspicions of sabotage on-board. The crew has 60 minutes to do the job and get out of the body, after which the miniaturization process will reverse itself automatically for reasons dealing with [insert scientific double-speak here].

The story is still a good read, unlike many other of Asimov’s tales that have gone stale with age. Yes, the gender roles are outdated: the brain surgeon’s competent specialist nurse gets an unfair treatment at several occasions, but Asimov also makes sure to show how unfair this behavior is. If one compares it to other stories from those years, by e.g. Poul Anderson, Asimov’s stance is progressive.The authorial research appears to be meticulous (it’s Asimov after all) and the reader gets a lot of state-of-the-art (for circa 1964 that is) information on human physiology.

Anyhow, the micronauts’ initial plan falls apart and they are is forced to improvise a lot. But these are quick-thinking competent people and I like reading about ingenuity. A hawk-eyed reader might be able to solve the whodunnit mystery by spotting several clues in the text, but that requires a certain amount of thinking outside the box. I read the story for the first time in Swedish translation when I was 14 years old and I failed. It should be easier for an adult who has read crime stories before.

This a good adventure yarn in an original setting. Keep in mind that it is 50 years old and then some of its idiosyncrasies become easier to handle. Yes, there was a certain tunnel vision in all societies during the Cold War and it is obvious here. Even though ideology like democracy or communism is never discussed, the story’s us-or-them morality is antiquated in the post-Vietnam War era.

The set-up can be transformed into an unusual role-playing adventure, though that would require quite a lot of pre-game map-making by the gamemaster, because she cannot know what routes the players will choose when things go bad (therefore the expression flow chart acquires at least one extra layer of meaning). Dr Asimov only had to account for one of them.

By the way, many years later Asimov wrote a similar story called Destination Brain. Don’t bother with it. It is chatty with some lousy attempts at in-depth characterizations. It is unfortunately one of the good doctor’s inferior late-in-life stories.