The Galapagos Incident, by Felix R. Savage (28:50)

IOD-GalapagosIncidentToday we see that if you tell us FTL comms are not possible, you should not then build your entire story around lagless interplanetary communications.

What I gleaned about the story: Elfrida has just been given a challenging assignment: Get her ass to asteroid 11073 Galapagos and convince the squatters to leave before the corporation slams their homerock into Venus. But her robot assistant may have a secret agenda.

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WTF #1: Impossible physics

Analysis: In the opening scene, a telepresence bot rescues a small child from an accident aboard a hollowed out mining asteroid. The bot is then confronted by an angry father and they argue. Interactively. In the next scene, it is revealed that the bot was actually being controlled remotely by a human operator. An operator situated 900,000 km away.

Okay, so clearly I’m about to be told about their fabulous FTL comms tech that allows such situational fidelity and response, right?

Unfortunately, I was told the exact opposite:

“No,” Elfrida said to the captain, 7.2 seconds after he’d asked his question. One day, maybe, FTL communications would be possible. In the year 2285, you had to wait for signals to schlep back and forth from one place to another. That was probably what had given her away to the squatters.

So the author correctly identified the lag problem, but I am completely baffled by how this reality was woven into the story. Apparently, what was reported to me as a seemingly lag-free interactive conversation between the bot and the angry father had actually been a bizarre conversation in which he yelled at a bot and it just stood there for 7.2 seconds before yelling back. But in direct contradiction to this bizarre image, the bot operator was also able to react spontaneously to an unexpected interruption at the same time as the father.

Or consider the fact that the rescue of the boy had involved guiding the bot through a complex ballistic maze of free-floating microgravity debris. And she did that despite a 7.2 second lag? None of this makes any sense.

To be honest, I considered pulling the plug right here. Not because of the physics mistake itself, but because the attempted explanation was applied so inconsistently that it left me completely baffled about when to expect lag and when to expect it to just magically vanish. And if I can’t trust the rules of reality, I don’t think I can fully immerse. I’m always going to have one eye open, waiting to be mugged by the physics. But I decided not to over-react, and pushed on. Maybe this was just an isolated problem scene.

WTF #2: More lagless communications

Analysis: Our protagonist is then sent on a mission to a minor asteroid, by way of another “phavatar”—one of those remote telepresence robot things. Again she’s staying at home and conducting her job remotely, including having real time conversations both with members of the crew and with the robot AI itself, from her home base back at Venus. It’s driving me batty that the author keeps acknowledging the communications lag but then conducting telepresence as if communication lags don’t apply there.

Nor would it be enough to simply wave your hands at it and say that the conversational lags were edited out for expediency. Lag changes the very nature and flow of a conversation. Just try having a chat over a lagging Skype connection and you’ll see what I mean. Speakers constantly step on each others’ lines. Conversational topics leapfrog each other. All the emotion drops out, all the nuance and banter evaporates. The conversation itself becomes a source of frustration and feels more like exchanging telegrams than a live, nuanced conversation. Such conversations are qualitatively different in character and shape from live ones.

But that all seems to have been missed here and I keep stopping to try new possible explanations on for size. Has the author maybe posited that operators and phavatars are connected through some zero-time quantum-entanglement link? No, that would count as FTL comms, which I’ve been explicitly told do not exist. Is the phavatar AI actually at Venus with her? No, then the AI wouldn’t be able to conduct natural conversations with the crew on her behalf when she isn’t jacked in. I just can’t find an explanation that fits, and I hate that. It prevents me from just getting on with enjoying the story.

WTF #3: Intrusive exposition

Analysis: During the journey to the asteroid, there are several consecutive scenes in which the entire point seems to be for the protagonist and her phavatar to bicker about who knows more about protag’s personal history and the history of humanity. It strikes me as a thinly veiled attempt to bring the reader up to speed on the backstory of this future world. But with nothing else to occupy my attention—no exploring the ship, no tuning the bot for microgravity maneuvering, no searching for the right kind of power port to recharge this new-model bot chassis—this whole section felt slow and pointless.

 

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.