Monday, August 17, 2015

Mori and Pop Girl - how do you fight someone who knows the future?

I recently came across the book The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. While it is an enjoyable read overall, the bit that interested me is a particular skill of one of the lead characters "Mori". Mori can see the future. Moris' faculties are so sensitive that people do not have to do things to make a particular future feasible, they only need to intend to do certain things. Mori would know what future would be led to if those intentions were executed. Also, since there are multiple possibilities about how the future can roll out, Mori is good at guessing only when one of the possibilities seem dominant. For example, Mori can guess that a dice is about to fall, but he cannot guess what face it would show because the outcome is truly random.

Now switch to the movie Push (2009), starring Chris Evans when he still wasn't Captain America. About mutants with different kinds of superpowers. We are introduced to this category called Watchers. Watchers can see the future. Here too, we have the notion of many possible futures, and what a Watcher sees changes based on what happens in the present. We meet the "Pop Girl", a powerful Watcher, who, like Mori, needs only people to decide on doing something before she can see the relevant future.

(You are a computer geek if you thought of the word "stack" just because I have said 'push' and 'pop' in the same paragraph. Like I did. ;) )

The reason I mention these characters together are both stories have people with no clairvoyant powers whatsoever trying to outsmart them. I think this is an interesting setup. Think about it - your enemy is prescient; when you even think of a strategy to fight them, they already know. How do you fight someone like that?

Interestingly, both stories deal with this differently:

  1. Mori vs Grace: Grace relies on randomness. When she travels she allows coin flips to do a lot of the decision-making. In a particular part in the story she needs a package to be carried by a device (trying hard to avoid spoilers here) - and she succeeds because the device has the capability to occasionally move randomly. Mori knows something is up, even that there is a package on the move, but he is at a loss to guess precisely. Remember, how he can see dice falling, but can't guess outcomes? This is exactly what happens now.

  2. Pop Girl vs Nick: Nick relies on not knowing the plan or having  his team know of the plan till the very last moment. Knowing the plan leads to intentions, and intentions lead to the Pop Girl seeing the future. So if you have a plan that is already set in motion, but you have nothing to do with it since you do not know about it yet, Pop Girl does not see it as a future you are involved in.

    How does Nick pull this off? He thinks up a plan - on the other side Pop Girl starts seeing a future - writes letters to the members in his team, including himself, detailing out the part of the plan they are to execute, with instructions to everyone to read their letters at predetermined times. Pop Girl does not see the whole plan yet. Nick then has his memory wiped out starting from the time when he thought of the plan. The memory-erasure is done by another kind of mutant - who is also instructed to hand over the self-addressed letter to Nick just after the erasure session.

    Once Nicks' memory is gone, so are his intentions around the now forgotten plan - and Pop Girl stops seeing a definitive future for Nick or his team. At a later point in time, when everyone has seen his or her part of the plan, it is possibly too late for the Pop Girl to do anything (she can tune into a future immediately, she cannot translocate immediately). Note that, just reading at a few instructions in a letter is probably not potent enough as realizing how they fit into the overall plan - blind instructions do show you some kind of a future, but your understanding of how the whole thing works, which lead to very specific intentions, are better fodder for Pop Girl. This adds another layer of vagueness that a Watcher must contend with. 
Both stories leave many questions unanswered, and having to do with playing around with time, (possibly) has loopholes. For example:
  • Moris' visions of the future where he has picked up a new skill imbues him with those skills now. So if in the future he is to speak flawless English, he starts speaking English now. How very Grandfather Paradox-y!
  • Why doesn't Pop Girl fall back to using her visions from the time before Nick had himself erased? Also, erasing would have been an intention - so she would have known that her visions before the erasing were good to go on with.

I am sure one can come up with possible explanations. But leaving details aside, and thinking of these ideas as only high-level suggestions instead of fleshed-out strategies, I liked how two different approaches - randomness and "just-in-time" plans were explored in the stories.