June and July’s Questions

(Somewhat belated, for which I apologize, but day-job-wise, it’s been a hell of a month. Actually, it continues to be, hence the dearth of postings in August, and now I’m about to ship off to Maryland for a week on a business trip, so…


Sorry, folks.)

Without further ado, let us commence:

Another question, in particular reference to A Good Man (https://eldraeverse.com/2012/04/05/a-good-man/): Would our titular “good man” have come under near as much scrutiny if, instead of going for general atmospheric distribution, he had instead just bottled the stuff and handed it out at sporting events, donated it to soup kitchens, passed it around as a seasoning when he had people over for dinner, etc., without explicitly revealing what the “secret ingredients” in his “special sauce” were?

Only insofar as it would have been harder to catch him at it, and inasmuch as the smaller the scale of your atrocities, the lower the relative urgency of dealing with you compared to whatever other atrocities are going on at the same time. Not less important, mind you, merely less urgent in the ISS master limited-resource-allocation algorithm of which target(s) get hunted down, mind-ripped, and archived in the inaccessible depths of the Aeon Pit today.

As per monthly question & provided I am paid up in full:

Would love to see a write-up of some alien ships. The Múrast in particular.

Ah, múrast designs. Can do. For anyone not remembering my species in detail, the múrast are methane-breathing, multiheaded serpents who originated on a Titan-like homeworld, and have a biology therefore rooted in ices, hydrocarbon sludges, and plastics. They are a biologically casted society (assembler, thinker, technician, worker, refiner), and most curious of all, possibly, the thinker caste are polysapic; they typically have around five minds each.

A múrast icehull – I can’t really give you the details of an individual múrast ship class because they don’t build them to class spec – looks something like a flying baroque cathedral, if baroque cathedrals were (in the gross details) radially symmetric and lacked a down direction. But that’s not how they start out. They start out as comets.

When a múrast sept needs a starship, they go out and grab a comet, and then start shaping it, burrowing into it, and adding machinery as necessary. A typical example has three or four main chambers: there’s a near-spherical “nest” chamber in the center of the mass where the assemblers (the caste responsible for breeding/building new múrast) and the refiners (food-producers/food-storers/biofactories) dwell; an ovoid “bridge” from which the thinkers command the icehull from a half-dozen consoles each, still buried but nearer to the leading edge, and an “engineering” chamber near the trailing edge where technicians and workers tend the main drive (typically a non-torch fusion thermal, or something of that ilk, with teakettle thrusters for fine maneuvering; i.e., they’re slowships, but the múrast mostly aren’t in a hurry).

Cargo vessels include a large hold volume somewhere accessible from the outside; often using simply cutting out and refreezing the ice in lieu of a mechanical cargo door. Military vessels are similar, except the hold is filled with racks of AKVs – or, in some cases, kinetic impact vehicles (i.e., flying icebergs) flown by members of the only-slightly-sophont worker caste.

The rest of the internal space is taken up with a “maze” swarming with more technicians and workers – auxiliary machinery tends to be melted into the ice here in convenient locations, as do various bits of “crew quarters” and “storage” – and, of course, the ice and incorporated sludges and slushes itself, which serves as food, replenishment, and remass, expanding the maze as the trip goes on. (When it runs out, it’s time to either graft on or jump ship to a new cometary body.) Múrast passengers just join the crew in the maze; the odd passengers of other species must bring a suitable cabin module of their own, or travel steerage.

Múrast biology is fairly vacuum-friendly; the ornate look of the ships comes from the workers and technicians who swarm over the outside, too, in flight, polishing and carving and generally buffing the icy brightwork to a mirror shine. The best theory on this is that it’s the sept-level equivalent of twiddling one’s fingers to ease deep-space boredom.

I’ll throw in three quick summaries of other species ships:

Sefir ships are the ones that I’ll never design in detail unless I need to, because they epitomize Boring, But Practical. Basically, they’re ISO Standard Human Spaceships, per the trope: boxy frameworks, mostly in haze gray, with maybe the odd logo or two slapped on the side. Conventional and middle of the road in essentially every way. Species which care more about aesthetics and less about low-bid procurement rules roll their eyes or break out in laughter or tears. Sometimes both.

Linobir ships are what you might call… culturally distinctive. It’s not quite a planet of hats situation, but what must be admitted is while the linobir themselves have a varied culture, the vast majority of linobir who own their own starships are space mercenaries, or other kinds of hired muscle, who turn certain cultural traits right up to eleven.

As such, the [stereo]typical linobir starship is instantly recognizable by, at the stern, the pusher plate of the Worlds’ loudest, dirtiest, and most importantly most powerful drive system, and everywhere else by all the turrets, blisters, bays, and barrels caused by strapping on whatever weapons systems they could get hold of literally everywhere they’ll fit; i.e., it’s a bundle of strapped-together guns that fires nukes out of its ass.

Any of the hull plating that’s still visible under all of that tends to be covered in advertising the crews’ abilities to kill things and break people.

Esseli starships are semi-organic. (Unlike the link!n-Rechesh, they aren’t dogmatically attached to biotechnology for relatively unsuitable purposes such as hulls – although they are made by biotechnological means – or drive systems; although their hulls do have a distinct curvy, organic shape to them, and very organic-looking mechanical tentacles.)

Step inside, on the other hand, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that you’re wandering around inside the warm, pulsing veins of a living creature, because you’re wandering around inside the warm, pulsing veins of a living creature (with, fair to say, a bionic fusion torch). The esseli are perfectly comfortable with using organic life support, shipboard information systems powered by ganglia, doors reminiscent of heart valves, fleshy control nodules and neural tendrils as user interfaces, and lots of similar tech on the squishy, slightly moist side.

(It is entirely untrue, however, that passengers are occasionally digested by esseli ships. They incorporate every standard biotechnological safeguard against unintentionally eating sophonts or their commensal lifeforms, and such would, as well as being rude and inhospitable, be ill-suited to their metabolism – they were, after all, engineered to eat fuel slush and occasional space rocks.

…and the odd hijacker.)

What would be popular on the Eldrae version of television? Or to broaden the question…’Mass media’. Do they go to the movies? 

Yes, indeed. From the incomplete list back in No Such Thing As Alien Pop Culture of things which the canon currently has named examples of – music, an extensive literary culture that includes popular novels, graphic novels, watchvids, InVids, slinkies, virtual-reality games, virtual-reality cosmoi, alternate-reality games, regular computer games, RPGs, board games, mechanical toys, recreational dueling and non-combat challenges, haut cuisine, participatory sports – they would fall under watchvids. (And this does include movie theaters, regular and drive/fly-in, because movie-as-social-experience is a subtly different genre from movie-as-personal-viewing.

Would something like ‘Iron Chef’ work…would ‘Days of Our Lives’ be in it’s 300th year? Would the times of the korásan be ‘Game of Thrones’ analogue?

Hm. Well, okay, let’s see what I can come up with by way of generalizations and specifics. One thing to bear in mind is that as you might expect, speculative fiction is very popular even among the widely varied mix that popular culture *there* is.

Some genres have trouble with the culture: soap operas are very limited for the reasons mentioned below about Days of Our Lives; sitcoms aren’t absent, but are limited in their presence and style by the local sense of humor; reality television is just plain absent for exactly the same reasons as the previous two are limited.

Game shows are present, but are not exactly the sort of thing we’d recognize as them: they have to incorporate very little of an element of chance, and be pitched at a level appropriate to an audience and contestants with quantum computers and Internet access lodged firmly between their frontal lobes, raised in an intellectual hothouse culture. This gives rise to shows like One Hour Mastery (learn a new skill in an hour well enough to impress our judges), Civil Engineering Challenge, Extreme Theorems (can our amateur mathematicians prove these unsolved hypotheses before time runs out?), and Science The Shit Out Of It (a very loose translation).

Likewise, there are talk shows, but they are appallingly high-brow by here’s standards: you aren’t getting celebrity gossip and personal issues, you’re getting Eliezer Yudkowsky Discusses The Finer Points Of Bayesian Rationality With The Panel.

(Popular science shows also have that same level adjustment – and that speculative fiction? Writers need to listen to their scientific advisor, because while the audience is willing to suspend its disbelief in your handwavium, it won’t put up with baryon sweeps or temperatures below absolute zero.)

The horror genre doesn’t play very well; an Imperial audience watching our example of it will spend all their time waiting for the monster to be punched in the face with a space magic fist of doom and will not be happy if they don’t get that payoff. (Eldrae in particular are really, really bad at being scared. They also have no respect whatsoever for stupid, which makes most horror-movie protagonists epic failures at attracting audience sympathy.) At that point, it’s more or less moved into action-adventure territory.

This affects the disaster movie genre, too, to a lesser extent: basically, anything from an earthquake to a zombie apocalypse can be good movie fodder, but the plot needs to include the essential elements of How We Triumphantly Overcame Adversity, Saved Our Asses, and Fixed Our Shit, Only Better. Canon example: After Rockfall, an RPG along the lines of Fallout with a heavy rebuilding-civilization slant.

(There’s also their quirky “construction/achievement drama” genre, which produces epic dramatizations of Touching Heaven: The Building of the Interworld Trade Center, and suchlike, which play well because there is an endless market for stories of Awesome Sophs Doing Awesome Stuff.)

To be specific, then, Adamantium Chef would definitely work, and gains some extra levels when you consider the amount of offworld biologicals available, and all the fun of biochemical compatibility. Hell, there’s probably Adamantium Pharmacist, too.

Days of Our Lives analog is rather less likely, since the whole soap opera genre is a casualty of the change in ratios between NTs and SFs per The MBTI Lens ; by and large, as said, the media of ideas is primary, which is not to say that plot and character elements aren’t important: Buffy the Vampire Slayer would work just fine because it has those coupled with ideas, although it probably doesn’t have a direct analog because of its core concept being subverting assumptions that don’t exist *there*.

Game of Thrones works, both for the above historical analog and because fantasy is a big part of the speculative-fiction genre.

Other shows and movies *here* likely to have analogs or port reasonably well with some care and attention would include, to give a necessarily incomplete list of examples, Eureka, Firefly, Guardians of the Galaxy – actually, throw in Iron Man and certainly the first Captain America, early House, Indiana Jones, Leverage, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, Mythbusters (again, perform appropriate level adjustments), Sherlock, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, Star Trek (only with less technobabble and communism; its analog To Boldly Go is established as taking ideas directly from declassified Imperial Exploratory Service mission reports, much as its more military cousin that might be loosely analogous to somewhere in the middle of Babylon 5/Star Wars/etc. grabs them from the declassified Military Service equivalents), Warehouse 13 … and I’m pretty sure at this point I’m revealing that I don’t actually watch all that much television, aren’t I? (You could dramatize some of our video games, too, for that matter – the InVids of Dragon AgeMass Effect, or Destiny would fit just perfectly.)

A question about the Fifth Directorate-is there some things they won’t do? Is there some acts that if the only choices are “we do this unforgivable thing or EVERYTHING dies,” the answer is “we die”?

Yep. Figuring out where the boundary lies is the job of the Operational Ethics Working Group, a.k.a. DREAMING MALIGNITY, whose professional abyss-gazers are specifically tasked with figuring out how much of a monster it is permissible to become in order to fight monsters.

I can’t give absolutely firm guidelines for where it is, because they don’t have any: by definition, they’re operating in the realm of excursive ethics, or for the Culture readers out there, Special Circumstances. But it’s easy to come up with some specific examples:

Given the choice of the Hive, for example, it’s a pretty clear-cut case of time to walk away from the Worm Gods, give ’em the finger, and choose extinction, on the grounds that becoming one’s antithesis – i.e., an entropy-worshipping horde of omnicidal maniacs – is not merely extinction-equivalent, but actually more negative than that in any reasonable ethical calculus.

On the other hand, when confronted by such an antithesis, murdering their gods and cleansing the remains from the universe using anything up to and including ontopathogenic weapons, while outside the boundaries of non-excursive/optimal ethics – well, it starts to seem downright reasonable.

There is a lot of territory in the middle for negotiation.

…and I’ll throw in an unpaid July question as a free bonus to the questioner who wished to know why the equal protection clause of the Imperial Charter doesn’t mention race, sex, age, orientation, etc., etc., etc.:

(a) What, “all/any/each citizen-shareholder(s)” wasn’t clear enough for you? When they say “all” in those parts, they mean it.

(b) The same reason that we don’t feel the need to specify that such equal protections also extend to mustache-wearers, artichoke-eaters, hat-featherers, Monopoly players, HBO subscribers, or people who have noses.

Think about it.


Trope-a-Day: The Ark

The Ark: One of the projects of the Emergency Management Authority/Fifth Directorate are the “Civilization-Backup Ships”, ark vessels hidden in deep space with as close to a complete backup of civilization as can be managed – the notion being that in the event of an extant existential threat large enough to threaten the survival of civilization entire (what’s called in the jargon a hard civilization kill event), they’ll come online under CASE NIGHTFALL ASUNDER, get the hell out of Dodge, and reboot it somewhere else.

The Conscience of Monsters




Proceed (+/-)? +


Warning: This document is classified MOST SECRET DREAMING MALIGNITY. If you do not have codeword clearance DREAMING MALIGNITY, you are enjoined to stop reading and report immediately, along with any instrumentalities representing, containing, storing, or processing this document, to Knowledge Control, under penalty of the most severe censure.

[SSP image elided from file]

Congratulations, agent fork, on your selection to OPERATION DREAMING MALIGNITY, alternatively designated the Operational Ethics Working Group.

DREAMING MALIGNITY serves as the conscience of the Fifth Directorate, as DREAMING SINISTER serves as that of the ISS in general. As the left hand of the Throne’s own left hand, we are permitted a certain degree of legal and ethical immunity in the execution of our duties, and for the good of the Empire. Or, since we are DREAMING MALIGNITY and it is our task to think clearly about such affairs: by the ethical standards it is our business to defend, we are monsters, albeit necessary monsters, damnable and damned.

It is the function of DREAMING MALIGNITY to compute, with mathematical exactitude, the precise degree of damnation which we may permit ourselves in the course of operations and potential catastrophe response contingencies. This is done in both the theoretical mode, in which we issue position and discussion papers on the calculus of ethical derogation and its practical application, and in the applied mode, in which we perform both forward-preemptive and backward-retrospective analyses on Fifth Directorate operations.

Your tour of duty with DREAMING MALIGNITY begins as of your reassignment date and will last no more than six years, during which period operational regulations specifically prohibit you from making use of memory redaction or a large number of other available noetic technologies. The function of DREAMING MALIGNITY is not to assess implementation capacity, success probability, utility, safety, or effectiveness. The Directorate is replete with computer models and ICE BLUESHIFT units more than adequate for that purpose.

The function of DREAMING MALIGNITY is to pass judgement on acceptable necessities, which requires a functioning ability to quantify the greater and lesser Darknesses of the universe and compare them, in order that by inflicting the latter the net total may be minimized. It also requires knowledge of those Darknesses, for which reason you have been granted a general MOST SECRET ULTRAVIOLET clearance by the discretion of the Executive, permitting access to the complete and unredacted data of ongoing Directorate operations. You have been selected for this duty by the current and outgoing members of DREAMING MALIGNITY in the belief that your primary possesses the mental capacity and, frankly, stability to perform it well. In an exception to normal Service practice, it is not permissible to decline the assignment.

You may consider this a compliment of sorts.

For security reasons, no communication with primary or other selves or any other party outside the simulation spaces allocated to DREAMING MALIGNITY, except as required by associated duties, is permitted during the six year tour of duty for agent forks assigned to DREAMING MALIGNITY. Additionally, after the tour of duty is complete, all participating forks have their run-time terminated and all mind-state and persona data associated with them wiped. This period has been selected since previous consensus of DREAMING MALIGNITY held unanimously that longer tours of duty constituted, in themselves, an unacceptable ethics violation, as demonstrated by high attrition rates. Cleared personal possessions and all arrears of pay are inherited by surviving primaries according to standard procedures.

Your sacrifice is appreciated.


Trope-a-Day: Suspiciously Specific Denial

Suspiciously Specific Denial: There is no Fifth Directorate, they aren’t a secret agency designed to fight existential threats and handle other excessionary issues, they don’t edit themselves out of the memory of anyone who claims otherwise, and they certainly aren’t standing right behind you with a stunner and a noetic redaction machine…

Trope-a-Day: State Sec

State Sec: Despite the name, Imperial State Security averts this completely; they’re just an intelligence/security organization, and a much more constrained (even the Fifth Directorate), non-autonomous one.  The only military is, well, the Imperial Military Service under a different ministry entirely, the regime protection forces are three entirely separate and relatively small organizations (the Imperial Guard, the Hand of Justice, and the Guardians of the Senate), and that’s about it.


Trope-a-Day: Sociopathic Hero

Sociopathic Hero: The Fifth Directorate has special tools (ICE BLUESHIFT) to induce the capacity for this sort of behavior – albeit very high-functioning ones, who genuinely don’t have any desire for cruelty [1] – under special circumstances, because in the existential threats business, sometimes necessity really does mandate, and so forth.  (They are also responsible for performing the various feats of mental editing necessary to let the operatives in question not go crazy when their empathy and conscience get switched back on.)

[1] Because that requires empathy, don’ch’know. There’s no point in hurting someone if their pain would be as essentially irrelevant to you as everything else.

Trope-a-Day: Resignations Not Accepted

Resignations Not Accepted: Averted – in a manner of speaking – for the Fifth Directorate.  You can resign any time you like; but the conditions of employment with the Fifth are that to resign, you get to have your memories of everything you ever did for them redacted and replaced with a plausible alternative life story (that happens to explain everything that you are on record as doing that couldn’t be otherwise… elided.).