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In ‘Synchronic,’ Time Travel Is Anything but Nostalgic

In ‘Synchronic,’ Time Travel Is Anything but Nostalgic

Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have created three of the best indie sci-fi films of the past few years—Resolution, Spring, and The Endless. In their latest movie, Synchronic, a paramedic played by Anthony Mackie discovers a designer drug that lets him visit the past.

“We were talking about, ‘What if there were a substance that made you experience time the way Einstein described it?’” Benson says in Episode 437 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “That is to say, that there’s no distinction between past, present, and future, and actually everything happens simultaneously, and time is more like a frozen river rather than a flowing river, and this substance—this drug—would allow you to experience that.”

The film is suffused with mood and color, much of which it draws from its New Orleans setting. Moorhead says it was important to set the film in a place that would be instantly recognizable at different stages of its history.

“With New Orleans, there’s just nothing like it,” he says. “It has this bizarre French and Spanish colonial history, as well as being very American—jazz and civil rights. Just an enormous history that is very, very, very specific to New Orleans. It occupies this wonderful bit of real estate in the American psyche.”

Benson says that time travel films tend to romanticize the past, focusing on manners and fashion rather than health care or social issues. “When you look at things like Back to the Future, it’s an amazing movie, but it does really gloss up the 1950s,” he says. “It’s something that’s been running through our media and our culture for a long time.”

Moorhead hopes that Synchronic will help combat that sort of reflexive nostalgia and give viewers a greater appreciation for the present. “It’s totally fine in any individual product to gloss up something or romanticize it,” he says. “It’s a choice. It’s not a moral failing of any individual product. But what we wanted to do was examine the other side of that.”

Listen to the complete interview with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead in Episode 437 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Justin Benson on indie films:

“Someday we’ll have a movie that everyone knows about the day it comes out because it has a $20 million marketing budget, because that’s how you do that. But that’s really scary too, because it better be really good. It better be awesome, because it’s the thing that kids are going to talk about in school on Monday. It’s actually kind of funny, because you get a little bit of a pass as an indie filmmaker, because if it doesn’t make an impact, people are like, ‘Oh, that’s what happens to indie films.’ You’re only really as good as your best film, in a way, and if something comes and goes, it doesn’t really hurt you. It just happens. But if there’s a lot of marketing put behind a bad movie, that’s a threatening prospect.”

Aaron Moorhead on characters:

“Some of the most exciting times for us when we’re on set are when our characters just get to talk to each other about something that isn’t specifically in the logline of the movie, and you will be shocked at how rare that is. And by the way, the things they talk about inform the later plot, and inform their character, and push the movie along, it’s just that in that exact moment they’re not discussing what to do about a time travel pill. There’s a common wisdom in writing that if the dialogue isn’t pushing along [the plot], then you might as well cut it. But if you cut it, you get something soulless, and you don’t understand these people. Because you can only express yourself so much through action. Our primary means of expressing ourselves as humans is through the way we communicate with others.”

Aaron Moorhead on the pandemic:

“We’ll probably be able to attend a local screening [of Synchronic] here in LA, where I believe there are two or three drive-ins, because we do want to see what it looks like. But the thing that’s funny about the drive-in experience is that there’s no way to be ‘in person.’ Most of them don’t even allow you to stand on top of your car and address the audience or anything like that. So being there just means that you are in your own car watching the movie you’ve seen a billion times. So that’s the thing. We’re going to go, because it’s our premiere, but there’s no function to actually being in-person at a drive-in, because there’s no in-person aspect to it. There’s no in-person Q&A.”

Aaron Moorhead on randonauts:

“[Random numbers] come from a computer, and it’s very complicated how they arrive at them, but still you can find how they derived that randomness. But there is a way to get actual randomness, which is to measure quantum fields, because quantum fields are actually random. And so [randonauts] are able to take these measurements and get actually random numbers that truly cannot be predicted in the future. They take those numbers and turn them into coordinates, and they go to those coordinates, no matter how hard it is to get there, and in doing so they have broken out of their deterministic tunnel, because there is no world in which they would have gone to that place if they had not followed those numbers.”


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‘Poster Girl’ Explores the Surveillance State’s Allure

‘Poster Girl’ Explores the Surveillance State’s Allure

Veronica Roth is the author of the bestselling Divergent novels, which were adapted into a series of popular films. Her new novel Poster Girl tells the story of Sonya Kantor, a young woman raised in an authoritarian society in near-future Seattle.

“I wanted her to be not a typical hero figure, but to be someone who’s complicit in the authoritarian regime that fell, and struggling with how she understands that, and how she’s been manipulated by this system,” Roth says in Episode 528 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Poster Girl imagines the ultimate surveillance state, where every action is recorded and judged by ubiquitous ocular implants. Roth says it was all too easy for her to imagine how Sonya might enjoy being constantly monitored and rewarded for her good behavior. “I was definitely one of those students who loved to be rewarded in school, and I was always good at tests, and I was always well-behaved,” she says. “It’s appealing to know that you’re doing the right thing, and you’re doing everything that you’re supposed to be doing, to a certain type of personality.”

The book was also influenced by Roth’s frequent trips to visit her husband’s family in Romania, a country that was ruled by the communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu until 1989. “Even now, if you go to the Christmas Market in Romania, they sell little magnets with Ceaușescu’s face on it, and this man was brutal and horrible to a lot of people,” Roth says. “But there are some people who have communist nostalgia, because for them it maybe wasn’t so bad during that time—maybe it was even better. But for everyone who benefits, there’s someone who doesn’t.”

Roth says the United States is closer to becoming a surveillance state than we’d like to think, and that researching all the ways in which our devices are tracking us has made her increasingly paranoid. “Basically you have to choose your poison—no system is particularly amazing,” she says. “We kind of have put this on the user to find ways to keep creeps out of your data, but I think that really shouldn’t be our responsibility, it should be protected on a grander scale.”

Listen to the complete interview with Veronica Roth in Episode 528 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Veronica Roth on privacy:

With the recent Supreme Court stuff about abortion, this has become more relatable to people. A lot of women have an app on their phone that helps them track their period, and there was a lot of talk about, “Oh, you should delete that app now,” because if the government can access your app data, then they could conceivably track when you last menstruated and determine whether you’ve had an abortion. And that’s deeply unsettling, but it’s just an example of how things can change overnight. … I went to the Women’s March in Atlanta after Trump was elected—my presence there was logged by my phone, and by social media—so if there was a significant regime change and suddenly it was criminalized to have gone to those protests—or not even criminalized, but it just puts you on some kind of list somewhere where you’re being watched—that’s closer at hand than people I think would like to believe.

Veronica Roth on her upcoming novel Arch-Conspirator:

It’s a sci-fi retelling of Antigone. … It’s post-post-post-apocalyptic. There’s one last settlement on Earth, and they’re all dying all the time. Basically I think the main difference [from the play] is that I had to ask myself how I was going to handle the incest, because Antigone is the daughter of Oedipus, who famously killed his father and married his mother, unwittingly, and then had children, and Antigone is one of those children. The incest of the play is important because she feels like she’s cursed from birth because of it, and other people in her society treat her that way. So I had to figure out if I was going to straight-up do that, and I decided not to because I wanted to create more wonder and mysticism around why she feels she’s cursed. So there’s pretty rigorous gene editing in this future, because of how everyone’s deteriorating in this Dying Earth environment, and she is not edited. So that’s the taboo that she carries with her as a curse.

Veronica Roth on endings:

I sent [Courtney Summers] an early version of the outline of [Poster Girl] with two endings. One was happier, and one was less happy. I chose the less happy one because she was like, “I don’t think the way you’ve set this up, that this is actually an ending that feels true to the book or feels earned.” … [The happy ending] just felt cheap to me. I felt the wrongness of it. I was trying to make it work, and I was like, “Well, what about this other thing I could do that’s way more of a risk for me emotionally?” And she was like, “You have to do that. That’s a great ending.” And I was like, “But I don’t know that I can bear it.” I remember saying that to her. Emotionally, as the writer of it, I didn’t know if I could live in that reality for that long. And she was like, “You can. You must.”

Veronica Roth on introverts:

My mother was a model when she was younger, so when I was a kid she was always trying to give us advice—like for headshots for high school—she would try to give advice: “You need to do this or do that.” And I just remember getting the prints and being like, “Wow, none of what I was trying to do appeared on my face.” I have no idea what my face is doing at any given time. So I think that discrepancy between how you feel and how you come across is something that a lot of people can relate to. Especially introverts, I feel like. You feel this rich and complex inner world within you, and then externally people are like, “Hmm, kind of a quiet person.” And it’s like, “Wow, what a bummer, to be described that way.”


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Scientists May Be a Little Too Excited About Weird Ideas

Scientists May Be a Little Too Excited About Weird Ideas

Sabine Hossenfelder is a theoretical physicist and creator of the popular YouTube series Science Without the Gobbledygook. In her new book Existential Physics, she argues that some of her colleagues may have gotten a little too excited about wild ideas like multiverse theory or the simulation hypothesis.

“If you want to discuss them on the level of philosophy, or maybe over a glass of wine with dinner because it’s fun to talk about, that’s all fine with me,” Hossenfelder says in Episode 525 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I have a problem if they argue that it’s based on a scientific argument, which is not the case.”

Multiverse theory states that an infinite number of alternate universes are constantly branching off from our own. Hossenfelder says it’s possible to create mathematical models that are consistent with multiverse theory, but that doesn’t necessarily tell you anything about reality. “I know quite a lot of cosmologists and astrophysicists who actually believe that other universes are real, and I think it’s a misunderstanding of how much mathematics can actually do for us,” she says. “There are certainly some people who have been pushing this line a little bit too far—probably deliberately, because it sells—but I think for most of them they’re genuinely confused.”

Hossenfelder is also skeptical of the simulation hypothesis, the idea that we’re living in a computer simulation. It’s an idea that’s been taken increasingly seriously by scientists and philosophers, but Hossenfelder says it really amounts to nothing more than a sort of techno-religion. “If people go and spit out numbers like, ‘I think there’s a 50 percent chance we’re living in a simulation,’ I’m not having it,” she says. “As a physicist who has to think about how you actually simulate the reality that we observe on a computer, I’m telling you it’s not easy, and it’s not a problem that you can just sweep under the rug.”

While there’s currently no scientific evidence for multiverse theory or the simulation hypothesis, Hossenfelder says there are still plenty of cool ideas, including weather control, faster-than-light communication, and creating new universes, that don’t contradict known science. “This is exactly what I was hoping to achieve with the book,” she says. “I was trying to say, ‘Physics isn’t just something that tells you stuff that you can’t do. It sometimes opens your mind to new things that we might possibly one day be able to do.’”

Listen to the complete interview with Sabine Hossenfelder in Episode 525 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Sabine Hossenfelder on entropy:

Entropy is a very anthropomorphic quantity. The way it’s typically phrased is that entropy tells you something about the decrease of “order” or the increase of “disorder,” but this is really from our perspective—what we think is disorderly. I think that if you were not to use this human-centric notion of order and disorder, you would get a completely different notion of entropy, which brings up the question, “Why is any one of them more tenable than any other?” … There’s just too much that we don’t really understand about space and time—and entropy in particular, gravity, and so on—to definitely make the statement. I don’t think the second law of thermodynamics is as fundamental as a lot of physicists think it is.

Sabine Hossenfelder on creating a universe:

There is nothing in principle that would prevent us from creating a universe. When I talked about this the first time, people thought I was kidding, because I’m kind of known to always say, “No, this is bullshit. You can’t do it.” But in this case, it’s actually correct. I think the reason people get confused about it is, naively, it seems you would need a huge amount of mass or energy to create a universe, because where does all the stuff come from? And this just isn’t necessary in Einstein’s theory of general relativity. The reason is that if you have an expanding spacetime, it basically creates its own energy. … How much mass you’d need to create a new universe turns out to be something like 10 kilograms. So that’s not all that much, except that you have to bring those 10 kilograms into a state that is very similar to the conditions in the early universe, which means you have to heat it up to dramatically high temperatures, which we just currently can’t do.

Sabine Hossenfelder on faster-than-light communication:

I think that physicists are a little bit too fast to throw out faster-than-light communication, because there’s a lot that we don’t understand about locality. I’m not a big fan of “big” wormholes, where you can go in one end and come out on the other end, but if spacetime has some kind of quantum structure—and pretty much all physicists I know believe that it does—it’s quite conceivable that it would not respect the notion of locality that we enjoy in the macroscopic world. So on this microscopic quantum level, when you’re taking into account the quantum properties of space and time, distance may just completely lose meaning. I find it quite conceivably possible that this will allow us to send information faster than light.

Sabine Hossenfelder on community:

When I was at the Perimeter Institute in Canada, they had a weekly public lecture. It was on the weekend—so a time when people could actually come, not during work hours—and afterward there was a brunch that everyone would have together, and I know that the people who would attend those lectures would go there regularly, and they would appreciate the opportunity to just sit together and talk with other people who were interested in the same things. This is something that I think scientists take for granted. We have all our friends and colleagues that we talk to about the stuff that we’re interested in, but it’s not the case for everybody else. Some people are interested in, I don’t know, quantum mechanics, and maybe they don’t know anyone else who’s interested in quantum mechanics. To some extent there are online communities that fulfill this task now, but of course it’s still better to actually meet with people in person.


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Culture – Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

Culture – Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

Ken and Roberta Williams are the cofounders of Sierra Online, the company behind such classic computer games as King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Quest for Glory. Their latest project, Colossal Cave: Reimagined by Roberta Williams, is a remake of the genre-defining Colossal Cave Adventure by Will Crowther and Don Woods.

“It’s a wonderful game, and I would love to bring it back to the world,” Roberta says in Episode 523 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “We want people to see that an older game like this can be brought back, and brought back in a beautiful way—and in a fun way—for today’s audiences.”

The game features modern graphics and sound, and even support for virtual reality devices such as the Quest 2, but is otherwise unchanged from the original text adventure. “We’re trying to stay super faithful to the original version,” Ken says. “If you’re doing history, you don’t want to change it. The old game has survived for 50 years. There’s still probably more people that play that game each year than play a lot of the indie games that come out. It’s a good, solid, well-designed game.”

Since selling Sierra in 1996, Ken and Roberta have spent much of their time sailing the world, a lifestyle that doesn’t generally lend itself to running a game studio. But Ken says modern communications technology has allowed them to work on Colossal Cave from anywhere. “In some ways the pandemic saved the game, because suddenly everybody uses Teams and Slack and all of these screen-sharing apps, and it’s practical now to work remotely on a project,” he says. “What we’re doing on this game couldn’t have been done five years ago.”

Ken and Roberta have assembled a team of almost 30 artists and programmers, most of whom weren’t even born when the original Colossal Cave was released in 1976. “None of them really knew what Colossal Cave was, and we’ve had to educate them,” Roberta says. “And I have to say that as we’ve worked with them on this game, in various ways—programmers, animators, artists—they have come to have such respect for this game, and I’ve been told many times, ‘I had no idea that this game was this good, and this interesting, and this deep and complex.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it is.’ It’s a really good design. And they have come to have such respect for this game, which is a really good sign.”

Listen to the complete interview with Ken and Roberta Williams in Episode 523 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Roberta Williams on The Black Cauldron:

[The Disney executives] came into the room, and they basically sat down and said, “We decided to change a lot of your game because it wasn’t fitting our script. There’s too many places where you’re letting the player wander around and nothing is happening, and you realize this is a movie, right? You have to follow the script of the movie.” … I went into Ken’s office and I said, “I’m not going to do this game with them because they just took my game and they changed it all around, and back to—basically it’s almost like a script for a movie again, and so what’s the point?” I just said, “I’m done. I’m not going to do it.” And he called them into his office, and he basically said, “She’s not going to work on it unless you leave her alone and let her do it her way”—that they had to trust me. And they came back into the conference room and they said, “OK, you can do it however you want.” And I did.

Ken Williams on success:

There are a lot of people like me who were born with parents that couldn’t send them to a good school, that weren’t able to afford to go to college because they had to quit and get married early, and yet somehow I managed to go from the bottom of the heap to the top of the heap, and really it was just through hard work. I don’t claim to be a genius of any sort. I’m just kind of a good old boy who works really hard. Even on this game, I get up before the East Coast people and I’m there after the West Coast people. I don’t fart around a lot. I really work hard. And I think that almost anybody who’s really willing to dig in and work hard can succeed. And Roberta’s the same way. We’re both highly focused, hardworking people.

Ken Williams on Sierra Online:

I wanted to create a company that my grandkids would know about, and that would still be around for multiple generations. All decisions at Sierra were based on the long-term, not the short-term, and that’s why we did so well. But when we sold it, suddenly everybody was looking at it saying, “It’s inefficient to have an operation in Portland and an operation in Seattle and an operation in Paris, and have programmers in Boston. Why don’t we just fire all of those people and consolidate to one location, and quit developing our own software and just publish software [like] other people do?” That brought it all down.

Roberta Williams on Farewell to Tara:

I hired a professional genealogist in Ireland, and then I hired one in New York, and I hired one in Iowa—the three places where [my ancestors] were—and I was getting a ton of information. I just kept getting more and more information, and was doing a lot of my own research, and I just loved doing it, until I accumulated three huge, thick notebooks full of papers and research, and I said to myself, “You know, I should write a book.” Because the story was actually kind of interesting. … I wanted to write it as a historical novel, and turn this real-life story into an interesting read. I didn’t want to write it just for family members only. I wanted to write it in such a way that readers of historical novels might actually enjoy it, even if it’s not their own family.


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Dune Is One of the Most Influential Sci-Fi Books Ever

Dune Is One of the Most Influential Sci-Fi Books Ever

Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, first published in 1965, is still extremely influential. Science fiction author Matthew Kressel recently re-read Dune for the first time in more than a decade.

“I was worried,” Kressel says in Episode 417 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “I was like, ‘Am I going to read this and not like it now? Have I outgrown this book?’ And absolutely not. It was the exact opposite. I love it even more.”

Dune contains a depth of worldbuilding that is seldom matched in science fiction. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley has always found the book a bit slow, but he acknowledges it as a great achievement.

“It’s a really impressive book, just coming from the point of view of a writer,” he says. “I’m in absolute awe, just thinking about the kind of effort and thought it would take to write a book like this.”

Dune has influenced many subsequent works, from Star Wars to Game of Thrones. TV writer Andrea Kail says that Dune‘s influence on the Wheel of Time series is particularly obvious. “I remember clearly reading the Wheel of Time books for the first time,” she says, “and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, this is totally Dune.’ He just lifted it wholesale.”

Frank Herbert wrote five sequels to Dune, and his son Brian Herbert (together with Kevin J. Anderson) has written more than a dozen more. Fantasy author Rajan Khanna sampled the first few sequels, but remains most interested in the original novel.

“I was feeling a sense of diminishing returns as I went further,” he says. “So I decided, ‘No, I’m good. I’ll just re-read Dune.’ Maybe someday I’ll read the whole series. But after watching too many movie series where they just get worse and worse, I thought, ‘Maybe this time I’ll just leave it at the beginning.’”

Listen to the complete interview with Matthew Kressel, Andrea Kail, and Rajan Khanna in Episode 417 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

David Barr Kirtley on Dreamer of Dune:

“There’s a biography of Frank Herbert that I read called Dreamer of Dune, written by his son Brian Herbert, who went on—along with Kevin J. Anderson—to write the sequel/prequel books. Unfortunately it was 15 or 20 years ago that I read it, so I don’t remember it in detail, but I just remember really vividly there was a part where [Frank Herbert] had put everything into Dune, and if it wasn’t a success he was going to have to give up writing. I just remember I closed the book at that point, and was really depressed. I was like, ‘Oh man, this is so hard.’ Then I picked it up the next day and started reading again, and everything went great for him, in terms of the book, after that.”

Matthew Kressel on court intrigue:

“What I love about this book is that there are so many layers of manipulation—and Herbert speaks openly about this, the feints within feints within feints. Everybody is playing each other on multiple levels, even to the point that the Bene Gesserit might have been played by somebody else on an even bigger scale. … [Herbert] understands what really motivates people. In that dinner scene, every glance, every motion, where someone’s standing, it all has significance. Sometimes I’ll read a science fiction book and I’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s kind of ridiculous. I feel the author’s hand.’ But in Dune, there was never a moment where I thought, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous. That would never happen.’ He’s just an astute observer of human nature.”

Rajan Khanna on Dune vs. Game of Thrones:

“When I was reading [Dune], it felt very Game of Thrones to me, in that you realize that Vladimir Harkonnen, the Baron, is just playing the game better. In a way, you can draw a direct line from Leto to Ned Stark, and be like, ‘Oh, he died because he didn’t play the game right.’ He was trying to be too noble, and the game doesn’t work that way. So I think as you read more of it, the Baron is just doing what he needs to do to put his house on top. And I feel like if you looked at the other houses of the landsraad, you’d probably see more of that kind of scheming, based on every other single noble person we see in this book.”

Andrea Kail on the power of literature:

“Reading [Dune] made me realize where I got my entire life philosophy from. I always say that I was raised by books—my entire approach to life I got from books. This is the book where I learned about honor, and sacrifice, and doing the right thing no matter the cost to you. I’d forgotten where it came from—I knew it came from books—but this was the source, this was like a personal Bible for me. And realizing that was incredibly emotional. I was reading this while I was on a business trip, and I’m sitting alone in a hotel room, reading, and actually just crying. Not so much because of the book, but because I was re-discovering myself as a teenager who was easily influenced by literature.”


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