There are two storytelling crutches that often come into play to “hand wave” over some plot inconsistencies or explain something odd and unusual. One of them is called magic, and the other one is called technology. They are both used as explanations of improbable and impossible events which are supposed to help the viewers suspend their disbelief.
It is usually very easy to make viewers accept magical events. All you have to do is to make up some magical system and say “this is just how magic works in this mystical world”. After all, we don’t have magic in the real world, so we might as well go with it. As long as the rules governing this magical system seem logical, consistent within the story, and do not contradict themselves it is easy for us to accept it.
Technology tends to be used the same way. Unfortunately, unlike magic we are pretty good at science. A lot of viewers have scientific degrees and at the very lest, most people took a science class or two in school. So if you start bending and contradicting laws of physics, we can easily call you on it. When you introduce a futuristic technology it must not only be consistent, but also plausible. Of course if you are blatant enough about it, and make it obvious you don’t even pretend to be using “real science” you end up in the same realm as magic. For example Lightsabers are so far fetched that we just accept them even though it would be impossible to construct them. Same goes for various methods that allow spaceships to travel faster than light. We all know it’s impossible, but we agree on this convention because it makes the story more interesting. These devices have no scientific basis for them so they are really nothing more but techno-magic. But closer you show us something that looks and acts just like existing real world technology, we will sort-of expect it continue working within the same limitations and in the same way.
Having a degree in Computer Science and working in IT for a long time doesn’t help me suspend my disbelief when writers try to include technology in their stories without actually bothering to understand how it works in the real world. Usually any movie or show that features “hackers” or computer security experts and etc.. makes me roll my eyes so hard, and so often that it actually hurts. :P Science Fiction often doesn’t cause as much eye strain for me – often because it’s usually pretty good about portraying science and technology in plausible way. Still, every once in a while even hard SF or Space Operas manage to drop the ball and annoy me with inane or poorly researched and thought out “future tech”.
For example, let’s take one of my all time favorites – Battlestar Galactica. The Cylon resurrection system that is an important part of the story has been pissing me off for a while now. I don’t have a problem with the system itself but it is portrayed as having an inherent flaw that more than once was used as a plot device. It’s just that the flaw is ridiculous, and it is almost inconceivable that no one ever worked out a countermeasure for it. Any engineer or sysadmin would ask two questions during his first visit to a Cylon resurrection shop – “how do you do backups?” and “What is the emergency restore procedure to the when a unit fails away from the ship without having a chance to transmit the latest state?”. Sad part is that it seems that no one ever thought about that.
For those of you who haven’t watched the series let me explain.
In the BSG universe, when an individual Cylon dies his or her consciousness is instantaneously transferred into a vat grown spare body which is kept on a specialized, well protected Resurrection Ship. The transmission seems to be instant, and happens at the exact moment of death but this process seems to have a limited range. This is why every Cylon fleet takes at least one Resurrection Ship with them wherever it goes. So far, so good – I don’t have a problem with that – in fact it is a pretty good system. Personally, I’d have a resurrection chamber on each Base Star and turn it into a distributed system, but I guess growing new bodies requires space and resources so centralizing this function is not such a bad idea.
The show however came up with an interesting idea. Want to truly kill your Cylon enemies in a way that prevents them from ever coming back? It’s easy as pie. All you have to do is to destroy the local Resurrection Ship and then simply do your thing. Yep, it’s that easy. Imagine being a Cylon and having to deal with that. If you accidentally die 10 feed beyond the range of the closest R-ship then BOOM! Permadeath! Your near immortality is over.
The sysadmin part of me reels in horror after hearing this. Who designs systems like this? What we have here is a permanent, irrecoverable data loss happening every time an expendable and temporary shell for your AI expires beyond the range of your wireless network. Thats is a criminally stupid design flaw – and one which could be easily fixed! Didn’t these people hear about backups?
Let’s think about it – the transmission of consciousness is almost instant. We have seen it on the show many times. Old body dies, and the Cylon wakes up in a vat of goo almost instantly. This tells me that it takes only a split second to send given Cylon’s memories and personality back to the resurrection ship, and few more seconds to actually upload it to a spare body. Since they are able to do this at all I think it is indisputable that heir consciousness can be fully digitized. There is this notion out there that digitizing human consciousness will never be possible because there is actually more to it than a mapping of neural connections and distribution of electric charges. I don’t know whether or not this is true, but obviously Cylon psyche can be transmitted digitally without any problems. If you can digitize something, you can back it up to permanent storage.
In other words, if Cylons have technology to upload the transmitted consciousness to a vat grown body, then they absolutely must have a technology to temporarily or permanently store this data on some sort of media. I mean it is a prerequisite – before you can put the consciousness in a body, you have to be able to store it somewhere. In fact, I imagine that the Resurrection Ships must be buffering these transmissions in some way before they do the body uploads.
For example, what happens if a Base Star is destroyed? Now you have instantaneous transmission from hundreds if not thousand Cylons streaming down from the wreckage, probably on the same frequency. What happens if the vats are not ready? What if there is a temporary power outage in the vat room? What if the prepared bodies turn out to be defective and need to be discarded? What if the transmission comes in with potential errors caused by outside interference? It’s just simple engineering concerns – you need to have a buffer which will hold the upload until the body is ready. Otherwise you would often miss the window of opportunity and consciousness transfers would simply get lost in space for silly reasons. Not to mention the need to check for transmission errors. It would be a pity to see a Cylon emerge from a vat half-retarded because the post-death transmission included static noise that could have been easily removed in some pre-processing CRC check.
So, if they are processing and buffering the signal there is no reason why they couldn’t just dump it into storage for safe keeping. What is the difference between storing it in memory for 20 seconds and saving it in storage for 3 days? Well, main difference is that the latter is cheaper than the former on all counts – at least by current technology standards.
So why not do a daily backup? Or even hourly incremental backup for that matter? Or even a continuous rolling sync to the R-Ship storage since it seems the consciousness transfer is almost instant? If the Resurrection Ship kept the “last good copy” of each Cylons consciousness then instead of permanent death, a stranded Cylon would simply loose last few hours or days of his/her life. If you would make Resurrection Ships sync up their backup data on regular basis, you now have a highly efficient distributed system that offers you virtual immortality. Permadeath would only be possible if someone would manage to track down all the Resurrection Ships with the copy of your consciousness.
I’ll go even further – why not allow Cylons to make emergency backups to personal storage they could then stow away in a safe place. Drop a thumb drive in a safe deposit box on Caprica before going on an important mission and you can be restored even if your whole fleet was wiped out.
So yeah, I don’t buy the whole “Oh noes, where is the R-ship? If we die now we die FOR REALS!” I just refuse to believe that a race of sophisticated intelligent machines would neglect something as important and basic as backups. It is a small thing, but it bugs the hell out of me.
[tags]bsg, battlestar galactica, cylons, backups, resurrection ship[/tags]