Tag Archives: Heinlein

631. To Grid or Not To Grid

Although I fully believe in it, I normally steer clear of talking about global warming, wind and solar power, and the impending end of civilization. There are plenty of sources for that, and I don’t want to get caught channeling PBS.

However, speaking of PBS, there was a bit about the problems of energy storage as part of the solar solution yesterday (Sept. 27) that made me realize I knew a few odd things from a few odd sources that were worth sharing.

I live in California, in the foothills of the Sierras. PG&E provides my electricity, but every time it rains more than a tenth of an inch, my power goes out for six hours. This has been true for decades, not just since PG&E went bankrupt for its role in recent fires and told us all that it was going to shut our power off every time the wind comes up.

It’s enough to make you want to go off the grid.

We’ve all grown up with the grid — even me. The first house I remember, about 1950, had no plumbing, no running water, and an outhouse out back, but it had electricity coming in from elsewhere through the wires. Consequently, I can’t honestly tell Lincolnesque tales of reading by a coal oil light (except when tornadoes took the wires down).

The history of the grid goes back to Tesla and Edison fighting the battle of AC vs DC, and continues through the REA. (That’s the Rural Electrification Administration which brought electricity to isolated farms throughout America in the thirties.)

The grid is wonderful; it has given us our present level of civilization.

The grid is terrible. It is a dinosaur, completely out of date and tying us to the mistakes of the past.

As is so often the case, both of those statements are true. No one decided to choose centralized production of electricity with a massive distribution system. Its alternative, dispersed production, was simply not an option in the past.

That is no longer the case. A system of solar power through electrovoltaic cells can now be built one roof at a time. (There are other alternative sources of electricity, but I’m only going to talk about one in this post.)

There is a big problem, though. Solar cells only generate sufficient power during reasonably sunny days. There is also a solution, but it is only going to work for a few years.

In today’s installation of rooftop solar cells, homes mostly draw on the grid at night and “turn the meter back” during the day. Quite clever, for now. It amounts to using the grid like a giant storage battery. But if enough rooftop solar installations try this trick, daytime generated electricity will become essentially a waste product from the viewpoint of the owners of the grid.

Of course you could have a mega-array of solar cells in America lighting up India at night, and a similar array in India lighting up America at night, but that’s turning the grid into a GRID. It’s good science fiction, but not very practical.

If you want off the grid — and eventually the grid will want you off, if you are a daytime energy generator — you will have to find a way to store your daytime energy for night time use.

Storage batteries are heavy and expensive, not only in the owner’s dollars but also in terms of world resources. They also blow up. I’m not just talking about lithium ion batteries; car batteries blow up too from time to time.

If you could invent the perfect battery — light, safe, cheap, environmentally friendly, capacious — it would make you more money than cold fusion.

If you could invent both, you would solve all the world’s problems except overpopulation and religious strife. You could run for God and probably win.

Heinlein invented the perfect battery, the Shipstone, and built a whole universe around it, but it’s harder to do in the real world.

Coming back down to the individual home owner, what is needed is a non-battery source of energy storage to make those solar cells practical.

I have an idea! Actually it isn’t mine; it already exists, and I can point to it.

Hop in the car with me and let’s take off for the coast. I drive by something every time the foothills get too hot and I need a Monterey fix down by the ocean. I’ll show it to you.

We’ll go there Wednesday.

Advertisements

619. The Crash Heard Round the World

Two days ago on the news, a Tesla driver was caught on camera asleep at the wheel on a freeway. We all got to see him snooze, then eventually got to see him jerk awake. Chit-chat ensued. One talking head said, “Someday sleeping at the wheel will probably be legal and safe.” Another replied, “Not in my car!”

When I was ten years old, everybody knew that men would never walk on the moon. In the subsequent decades, the public’s default position on what science plans to do has switched from can’t to can. The public isn’t any smarter; they’ve just changed their prejudices.

Driverless cars have been around for a long time in science fiction. Here is page 2, paragraph 1 of Methuselah’s Children by Heinlein, first published in 1941.

Mary had no intention of letting anyone know where she was going. Outside her friend’s apartment she dropped down a bounce tube to the basement, claimed her car from the robopark, guided it up the ramp and set the controls for North Shore. The car waited for a break in the traffic, then dived into the high-speed stream and hurried north. Mary settled back for a nap.

Good fun in ’41, but no one would have expected to see it happen this soon. Even science fiction aficionados might have said 2119, or maybe 2219, yet here we are, on the brink.

In 1941, the world was very different. Heinlein might imagine driverless cars, but he never imagined something else that is now part of our world — computer hacking.

Hang on, folks, I’m going to make a prediction.

At a near future date every car on the highway will be driverless. The old curmudgeons like me who wouldn’t even trust cruise control will all be dead, mostly from auto crashes with drivers who did trust cruise control. The text-and-drive crew will have won the battle of the public consciousness. Science will have proved that humans are inferior to computers in driving, and science will be right because it will be comparing computers to the text-while-driving generation. Human drivers will be outlawed as unsafe — which they will be.

Driverless cars will talk to each other and to central control, adding another layer of safety to the whole enterprise. Central control will be heavily protected against hacking, for obvious reasons. Science will prove that central control is impenetrable.

Science always proves something like that, just before the cataclysm. See Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

All that was just set-up for the prediction.  Here is the prediction.

Sometime in August of 2035, a kid named Morrisey, who isn’t even born today, will hack the un-hackable central control. No one will notice. He will place a delayed command, and head for a hill overlooking an LA freeway.

On August 26th, 2035, at peak rush hour, central control will send out an order and every automobile in America will speed to 100 mph, then simultaneously make a ninety degree left turn.

Registering 4.6 on the Richter scale, it will be the Crash Heard Round the World.

St. Peter will have to put on extra staff.

601. Home Court Advantage

Jandrax was the second novel I wrote, and the first that was published, back in the late seventies. You can still find it in used bookstores everywhere. If you were to read it, you would never know that I wrote it twice.

The first time through, I wrote it in first person. It didn’t work for me. I agonized a bit about what was wrong, then bit the bullet and rewrote it from start to finish in third person.

By the way, this was before computers . No cut and paste, no spell check. Just an electric typewriter and gallons of correction fluid — that thin white paint that came in a small bottle with built in brush, and was a lifesaver for poor typists.

Also, I cheated. Two chapters sounded just fine in first person, so I left them that way. One is a main character reminiscing about his childhood, and the other is another main character, alone in a boat, talking to himself as he undergoes experiences that may or may not be real.

I have written fifteen novels, and only that lost iteration of Jandrax was in first person. I could give you good plot-based reasons for that, but the reality is that I like the distance third person put between the author and the work. That may be a mistake.

Recently, I have been analyzing what makes books readable and re-readable, and that has led me to my favorite SF writers, Heinlein and Zelazny. For all their differences, they share a few authorial traits, including the fact that both are masters of first person.

Each author has a stock character that recurs with variations. For Heinlein, it is complicated by the fact that his stock character often comes as a matched pair. There is an older, seasoned man of the world, cynical, with no apparent respect for authority. He will, nevertheless, hurl himself into danger for his own people while pretending that he is doing it for selfish reasons. He reads like your crazy uncle. The matching character is a young smart-ass in training, studying up to become like the oldster. But don’t accuse him of that. He would punch you in the nose if you did. Or at least, threaten to.

Zelazny didn’t limit himself to one stock character, but he did have one that recurred frequently. He was part way between the halves of the paired Heinlein character. He was young, but fully formed. He had the attitude of a smart-ass college student, an upper class-man who had already learned the ropes. The kind who knew which professors had something worth listening to and which ones were dopes. (There are a lot of dopes in academia.) There was a brightness, a newness, about his attitude. He seemed to take nothing seriously on the surface, but underneath he took everything very seriously. And he expected the reader to see this for themselves.

In the Amber series, Merlin was such a character. Corwin was similar, but older and more damaged by time. His responsibilities had risen to the surface, and he got a lot less enjoyment out of life. Consequently the second half of the Amber series is a lot more fun to read (and re-read) than the first half.

Merlin and his clones, and the Heinlein character whatever gender or age he/she happened to be, are what every American youth pretends to be. And what American oldsters claim they once were.

All these characters speak directly to the reader, but not honestly. They hide their nobility under a guise of selfishness, but they expect the reader to know that it is all a sham. They speak in first person. They say “I”, not “he”, and it works.

One suspects that Heinlein and Zelazny — the actual people — said “I” a lot, too. As Harlan Ellison put it, “The thing every writer has to have is arrogance.” And by any definition, Heinlein and Zelazny were writers.

When a writer chooses first person, she/he is giving him/her-self a tremendous home court advantage. If his character if full of sadness and self-pity, there will be readers to say, “That’s just how I feel.” If his character appears to have no fear, there will be readers who share the same pretense.

If the character is a smart-ass, that’s even better. We all have those cutting remarks we don’t make, in order to keep peace with family and friends. We are all smart-asses under the skin.

599. Wandering Quotes

This is a follow-on from Monday’s post, but it isn’t Part 2.
Either post can be read independently.

Louis L’amour left home early, wandered the world, then settled down to be a writer. Unlike many who came at writing later in life, L’amour was set on it from the first. He said:

My intention had been to write, and consequently I had made  no effort to acquire a trade . . . All I had to offer was considerable physical strength and two hands, but for most jobs that was all that was required . . . All the while I read. There was no plan, nor at the time could there be. One had to read what was available . . .

It would be hard to live such a life today. The hard work of the world has been outsourced — within America to undocumented aliens who fear INS too much to fight back against slave-like labor, and outside America, to a world-wide cadre of peasants, living slave-like lives. 

L’amour also said of his memoir:

This is a story of an adventure in education, pursued not under the best of conditions. The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office, or even a newsstand.

If L’amour were alive today, he would of course include the internet, with appropriate caveats.

L’amour’s westerns are full of slam bang action. There is no way to pretend that isn’t a large part of their appeal, but it isn’t enough to account for their huge popularity. There are plenty of shoot-em-ups that are briefly on the newsstand, and as quickly disappear from memory. Louis L’amour has proved as close to immortal as a genre writer can become.

I’ll take a stab at explaining why. Feel free to disagree. He was a “frontier philosopher”. Note the quotes; this term is actually insulting, but it fits. L’amour had read as widely as any author, and his understanding of human beings was profound. But when he made “philosophical” pronouncements, he couched them in simple language, and frequently put them into the mouths of uneducated characters. They sound wise, but without arrogance.

Have faith in God but keep your powder dry.

Adventure is just a romantic name for trouble. It sounds swell when you write about it, but it’s hell when you meet it face to face in a dark and lonely place.

A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.

Violence is an evil thing, but when the guns are all in the hands of the men without respect for human rights, then men are really in trouble.

Just because the NRA also says it, doesn’t make it wrong.

A mind, like a home, is furnished by its owner, so if one’s life is cold and bare he can blame none but himself. You have a chance to select from pretty elegant furnishings.

Knowledge was not meant to be locked behind doors. It breathes best in the open air where all men can inhale its essence.

When you go to a country, you must learn how to say two things: how to ask for food, and to tell a woman that you love her. Of these the second is more important, for if you tell a woman you love her, she will certainly feed you.

That one might not be politically correct any more.

It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.

Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.

Just because every New Age self-help book also says it, doesn’t make it wrong.

Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.

Do not let yourself be bothered by the inconsequential. One has only so much time in this world, so devote it to the work and the people most important to you, to those you love and things that matter.

If you want the law to leave you alone, keep your hair trimmed and your boots shined.

Okay, that last one could just as easily have come out of Heinlein’s mouth. I find those two authors to be much alike, each attuned perfectly to his own era, and both as American as the flag.

—- ALSO —-

When L’amour settled down to write, he tried his hand at many different genres, and stayed with the ones that paid the rent. Early on, he wrote poetry (and you know that didn’t pay the rent).

Many years ago I discovered that his poetry had been collected in a book that sold very few copies, and those only locally. I managed to get a copy on inter-library loan, and enjoyed it. I even copied a few poems and stored them in my computer, since I never expected to see the book again.

Then, in researching this post, I discovered that Bantam had reprinted Smoke From This Altar, so I immediately bought a copy.

If you have a liking for Kipling and Robert Service, you might give him a listen. The work is not all great, but there are gems. I can’t quote a whole poem, that would violate copyright, but I’ll give you a piece of one as a taste.

I turned the leaves of an ancient book
    A book that was faded and worn —-
And there ‘tween the leaves I found a rose,
    A tiny rose, and a thorn.

In truth, they aren’t all good, but I don’t mind digging through lumps of glass for an occasional diamond. Recommended, with reservations.

575. Textbook: The Rolling Stones

This is a continuation of the post Learning Spaceflight.

For someone reading this post today, it will require a bit of imagination to recreate the head space I’m talking about. Think 1952. Sub-divisions and interstate highways were brand new. NASA was still three years in the future. Heinlein wrote a science fiction juvenile called The Rolling Stones in the year Mick Jagger was still twelve years old.

In the interests of full disclosure, I was five years old that year, so I must have read it six or seven years after publication.

In those days, those of us who were in love with the idea of spaceflight were getting our fix from science fiction, and mostly from juveniles. PBS was seventeen years in the future, and NOVA was twenty-two years in the future.

I recently re-read The Rolling Stones. It was never my favorite novel. I would give it one star for plot and no stars for its obnoxious characters.

The Stone family lived on the moon. The slightly underaged twins wanted to buy a spaceship and flit around the system on their own, using money they had made from an invention. Dad said, “No,” but never fear. He bought a larger ship and took his whole family along, first to Mars, then to the asteroid belt.

If my tone sounds facetious, chalk it up to how irritating all the characters were, but as a textbook on how to fly in space, The Rolling Stones was top notch.

Here is an example. Leaving Luna for Mars, the Stones opt for the most economic orbit. This puts them in a long line of craft who have made the same decision. They fuel up on Luna then drop down to pass close to the Earth because . . .

A gravity-well maneuver involves what appears to be a contradiction in the law of conservation of energy. A ship leaving the Moon or a space station for some distant planet can go faster on less fuel by dropping first toward Earth, then performing her principal acceleration while as close to Earth as possible. To be sure, a ship gains kinetic energy (speed) in falling towards Earth, but one would expect that she would lose exactly the same amount of kinetic energy as she coasted away from Earth . . .

The mass of fuel adds to the energy as they drop deeper into the Earth’s gravity well, but the fuel is expended at perigee so it does not subtract from the energy as they move away. I’m interrupting RAH and explaining it myself because he took too many paragraphs, but that’s where I learned about gravity well maneuvers. By the time I got to college my main interest was ecology and then anthropology, so I never studied engineering or orbital mechanics. I still wish I could have done both but, in truth, most of my knowledge of space travel came from Heinlein, Clarke, Ley, and Goodwin, with lesser lessons from Gamow, Coombs, Hoyle and dozens whose names I no longer remember.

Later on, the Stones headed out for the asteroid belt. They . . .

shaped orbit from Phobos outward bound for the Asteroids six weeks later. This was no easy lift like the one from Luna to Mars; in choosing to take a ‘cometary’ or fast orbit . . . the Stones had perforce to accept an expensive change-of-motion of twelve and a half miles per second for the departure maneuver. A fast orbit differs from a maximum-economy orbit in that it cuts the orbit being abandoned at an angle instead of being smoothly tangent to it… much more expensive in reaction mass.

Of course. That makes perfect sense.

I watched the first part of a NOVA program the other day called The Rise of the Rockets. I turned it off about ten minutes in muttering kinderspiel. At least that’s the word I’m choosing to use in this family site. That happens a lot. NOVA covers fascinating subjects, but they tend to dumb them down. The old dudes did it better, even in their fiction.

However, they didn’t always get it right. Regarding the asteroid belt, RAH said . . .

But it was not until the first men in the early days of the exploration of space actually went out to the lonely reaches between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and looked that we learned for certain that the Asteroids were indeed fragments of a greater planet — destroyed Lucifer, long dead brother of Earth.

Back in the fifties when The Rolling Stones was written astronomers had not yet decided if the asteroids were an exploded planet or an unformed one, caught in the tidal stresses of Jupiter’s gravity. RAH chose the more exciting option. Today we know better. Too bad. I always wanted to write a novel called The Last Days of Lucifer. I guess I still could, as steampunk.

In the fifties, we knew little about the universe and not all that much about the solar system. A lot of what RAH and others wrote has been killed by current knowledge. He had a non-human civilization with canals on Mars and intelligent talking dragons in the swamps of Venus. But he knew his math, and his rockets always got where they were going by following the rules of physics that NASA uses today.

574. Learning Spaceflight

I learned how to fly in space before spaceflight existed, from science fiction writers who, in turn, learned it from pioneers like Robert Goddard, Willy Ley, Herman Oberth, and Wernher von Braun. Or Tsiolkovsky in Russia. The pioneers’ tool was mathematics. They speculated, then looked at those speculations through the unblinking eye of calculations. They taught everyone how to fly in space long before NASA existed. Later some of them worked for NASA.

When I was researching for a post on Apollo Eight, I encountered reference to the barbecue roll. I had known about that maneuver from science fiction, long before Apollo Eight.

The barbecue roll is needed because vehicle in deep space is surrounded by vacuum with sunlight impinging on one side and sub-polar cold on the other. In low Earth orbit, that condition only lasts 45 minutes of every 90 minute orbit followed by pure cold in the Earth’s shadow. Apollo Eight was the first manned vehicle to endure that temperature imbalance on a long term basis — roughly five days. That’s a lot of stress.

The solution, used on Apollo Eight, then Apollo’s Ten through Seventeen, was to spin the craft about it’s long axis. It was called the barbecue roll, as in a rotisserie. You can hear that phrase used in the movie Apollo 13, and it will probably appear on the movie First Man when it comes out in October.

Anyone who had read any science fiction knows about spinning ships to provide artificial gravity. That’s not what we are talking about. The barbecue roll was quite slow, the distance from center of craft to skin was small, and any pseudo-gravity produced was probably imperceptible. The entire purpose of the roll was to equalize heat distribution by exposing all parts of the skin to heat, then cold, in sequence.

Long before there were real spacecraft, I had read about this maneuver in early science fiction, probably multiple times. It made me want to know who thought it up, which scientist first wrote about it, and how many decades before it was needed was it speculated into existence.

It struck me as a prime example of the kind of thing the pioneers did while they were writing the rules of the game, long before the game was ever played.

I looked for answers and struck out. I spent far too many hours reading the same few references on the internet, usually repeated without credit, or reading technical articles. The papers scientists and engineers write are long on facts, but short on history.

Somewhere, somewhen, somebody was dreaming about his imagined spacecraft out in a long orbit between the planets, and figured out how to equalize temperature. It might have happened several times independently. I would love to have been there, in the dormitory lounge of some engineering department, or in a meeting of enthusiasts at some model rocket club, or in the bedroom of some kid like Asimov in America or Clarke in Great Britain or some kid whose name I can’t even guess in Russia. What fun to be there when some nerd (before the word existed) slapped his head and said, “Hey, listen to this!”

Of course that moment in inaccessible, but somewhere, sometime, somebody wrote down his speculations in a paper that only enthusiasts would ever read. That is what I could have reasonably hoped to find. If you have any clues where I could continue the search, please reply to this post.

What I finally did find was one partial reference in Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones, quoted here:

The weather outside the orbit of Mars is a steady ‘clear but cold’; no longer would they need reflecting foil against the Sun’s rays. Instead one side of the ship was painted with carbon black and the capacity of the air-heating system was increased by two coils.

I clearly remember, from several sources, the notion of painting part of a vehicle black to better absorb solar energy as ships moved out further from the sun. One nagging memory has a ship painted with white and black stripes and spun. Heinlein did not spin his ship; he distributed heat to the cold side via refrigerant coils. In that particular novel, Heinlein had to maintain a non-spinning ship for plot reasons. In science fiction, physics start the ball rolling but plot determines where that ball ends up.

We’ll look closer at The Rolling Stones as a textbook for spaceflight within the solar system on Monday.

562. Davy

This is one of my best stories series.

I re-read. It is my equivalent of brainless television. There are books that I frequently re-inhabit in order to once again enjoy the people, scenery, and action.

There are also books I read only once, and never need to read again. They become such a part of me that I still remember them decades later.

Edgar Pangborn provided two such books, Davy and The Trial of Calista Blake. I read each of them only once, between 1964 and 1967. I have never forgotten them, nor have I ever wanted to return to them. They were life changing, if read at the right age.

===========

I grew up in an era of fear. The bomb hung over us all, and fiction followed the trends of the day. Speaking from memory, not scholarship, it seems to me that it was the end of the exclusivity of science fiction. Events that would have once interested only the few and the faithful, were turning up on the best seller list. Books like Fail-Safe and On the Beach were called science fiction, and I suppose technically, they were. But they didn’t taste like science fiction because they were written by mainstream writers with different sensibilities. That may not be a legitimate complaint, but in truth they tasted like steak with no salt.

The flip side of the here-comes-the-bomb novels was an endless cavalcade of post-holocaust dystopias. The first book I read, the first day I discovered libraries, Star Man’s Son by Andre Norton, was one of those. There were dozens to follow; maybe hundreds. They mostly ran together in a mass of future sadness, but a few were memorable.

Davy stood out because it’s horny orphan protagonist got such joy out of life. He found a French horn in the rubble and taught himself to play it, which always made the book seem more like fantasy than science fiction. If you know French horns, you’ll understand.

We spend much of the book watching Davy go from ignorance to knowledge. The cover of the edition I read compares him to Tom Jones (the novel, not the singer) and that seems fair.

Davy’s world is the northeastern United States, a couple of centuries after the nukes fell. The names are scrambled but mostly decipherable. The state religion is the Holy Murican Church and belief is not optional. Davy falls in with anti-religious dissidents, which suits his doubter’s personality.

The novel is carried by Davy as a questioning, ebullient youth, but saved from silliness by a brooding feeling that all will not be roses. The story arc makes everything work. We see young Davy growing up as told by his older self, but we are spared the works of his maturity. There will be striving, battle, despair, and betrayal when the mature Davy attempts to mold the world to his liking, only to have it fall apart in his hands. That is the part of the story another novelist would have concentrated on, but we see it only in brief flashes. Then we are at the final chapter, a kind of coda in which Davy totals up his gains and losses and prepares for a final, hopeless journey.

What we have here is the joy of youth, overlain by the elegiac sadness of hopeless struggle against human inadequacy. Heinlein could have written it, but it would have had little heart because his protagonist would have stood above the fray, superior to the mass of humanity. Davy partook of the same human conditions that he fought against. Just like the rest of us. That made Davy stand out as something better that the rest of the dystopias. It made the novel a work of art to move the soul — at least if you read it at sixteen, while waiting for the bomb to fall.