Tag Archives: science fiction

585. A Life of Reading

Trying to write a post on The Road to Corlay has turned out to be tough. I remember the book clearly, and I didn’t remember it at all. That is, I remember how I felt when I read it. I remember the feel of its countryside, and the slow grace of its human interactions, but I can’t remember one name, and can hardly remember one scene. I would drop the whole thing, but I “made my brag” by posting the list early. I need to read Corlay again, but that poses a problem. I don’t have the time.

It was scheduled for today, but I’m going to have to postpone it for now.

I retired from teaching about seven years ago and went back to writing full time. I had written quite a few books in the seventies and eighties, before hunger sent me to get a day job, and a few more while I was teaching, but that wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy me. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t about mortality. I plan to live to be a hundred because I’m just too damned busy to die.

The fact is, reading a book is ten times better than watching a movie, but writing a book is fifty times better than reading one. And takes fifty times as long.

Besides the hundred thousand words a modern novel demands, there are the other hundreds of thousands of words you have to go through while getting to the right ones. And there are all those books you have to burrow through looking for just the right bit of information or inspiration to help you understand how that next chapter is supposed to come out.

Just reading a book for fun gets lost somewhere. I read the things I need to read, and late in the evening I read comfort books, like the thirtieth Nero Wolfe, which isn’t that different from the other twenty-nine.

It wasn’t always that way.

I was an only child on a farm in the fifties. We had one black and white TV that got two channels, which my parents watched while I read. Of course I became a reader; what else was there to do. From the time I discovered the county library, there was no time I didn’t have a stack of books awaiting my attention.

But I didn’t talk about it. My mother read occasional romance novels but she didn’t talk about it. My dad read the Bible, but he didn’t talk about it. The habit started early.

I read books about hunting and outdoor life. I lived outdoors, but on a tractor. I never hunted, barely fished, and I had never seen a tent. The real outdoors wasn’t for play, it was for work, and that didn’t satisfy me.

Looking back, I know that the place I lived as a boy was rather lovely, in a muted sort of way. It was farm country, lightly populated by humans, but with plenty of birds, and occasional coyotes and possums. Nevertheless, every patch of ground was either under the plow or turned into grazing land. There was nothing truly wild. I wanted forests and streams, fish and game, and snow, along with the freedom to wander through them.

It was all available in books, along with a thousand other adventures all over the globe.

My school mates read because they had to read — but nobody talked about it. Nobody read science fiction. Nobody wanted to know any more about science than they were required to. I was reading and studying continuously, preparing to head for college to be a scientist — but I didn’t talk about it, because no one else really wanted to know.

When I got to college, one of my roommates was a science fiction fan. We talked about it, but only a little. By then, my habit of silence was pretty well set.

A lifetime later I started this blog. It’s the first time I’ver really talked about the books I love and why I love them, right here, talking to you —

Hi. You see, there was this book called The Road to Corlay . . . but I guess we’ll just have to chat about that later.


583. Mutually Assured Destruction

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and every year I taught the manned space program. It was never called for in the required curriculum, but I always managed to shoehorn it in while still teaching everything I was required to. It wasn’t just because I loved the subject, although I did. There were plenty of things in science that I loved but never mentioned.

The plain fact is that seventh graders don’t listen unless you excite them, and the manned space program was exciting.

Here is a schtick I used in my middle-school classroom all through the eighties and nineties. The subject was, “What motivated Americans who didn’t care about space to spend billions to outrun the Russians in the Space Race?”

I would choose two pushy, self-assured young guys and call them to the front of the room. I would put them face to face, about ten feet apart, and say, “Now, imagine each of you has a .45 automatic, and each of you hates the other one. We’ll call one of you America and the other Russia. I don’t want to insult you, so I won’t say which is which.

“Point your guns at each other. (They would gleefully assume the position.) If either one of you fires, the other will have just time enough to pull the trigger, too. You will both go down. If you sneeze, though, you’re a goner. If you blink, you’re a goner. If you look away, same thing.

“Now hold that pose for fifty years.”

Clearly, I couldn’t get away with that today, but this was pre-Columbine. My kids were thinking about cops and robbers, not  a terrorist who was out to kill them.

Do I have to point out that the guns represented the American and Soviet nuclear armed arsenal of missiles? It was a demonstration of Mutually Assured Destruction, also known by its entirely appropriate acronym MAD. If either side had attained an overwhelming superiority in number of missiles, the delicate balance would have been disrupted. Witness the Soviet’s parading their missiles in Moscow, and taking them several times around the block to look like they had more than they did.

The balance could be disrupted by having missiles closer to the enemy than the enemy did to us. Witness secret American missile bases in Turkey, on the Soviet border, which led them to put missiles in Cuba. The Cuban Missile Crisis was not an unprovoked Soviet threat.

The balance would have also been disrupted by an effective missile defense system. There is no such thing as defensive in the MAD scenario.

What does this have to do with space travel? Two things, one positive and one negative. The entire business was a race for the nuclear high ground. If either side had managed to put an orbital missile platform into orbit, it would have been bad news for the other side. That was not possible, so each side tried to maximize their capabilities in space while proving to the hundred plus other nations on the Earth that they were the firstest with the mostest.

I would repeat that in Russian if I could write Cyrillic.

All this turned into the Space Race, culminating in a manned lunar landing, It’s nice that something good came out of all that nonsense.

The other side of the coin was a reinforcement of fear of nukes, whether it was bombs, powerplants, or space drives. In the fiction of the sixties, the solar system was filled with nuclear powered spacecraft. In the real world, fear killed the idea.

Should we have nuclear spacecraft? I think so, but it isn’t for me to say. It isn’t for you to say, either. It isn’t even for the people to say.

Why? Because we’ve shifted our focus from the Russians to the Chinese.

If history is a guide, we will have a nuclear spacecraft — a few years after the Chinese launch their first one. We’ll be running behind and playing catch-up as usual.

Remember Sputnik?

582. Newtonian Nukes

Everybody who read the last generation of science fiction juveniles before Apollo knew Newton’s third law:

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The demonstrations in popular science books of that same era usually went something like this: imagine a person on a frozen pond wearing ice skates, throwing bricks. Every brick he throws will move him backward. If we could ignore the friction of skates on ice, it would be proportional. That is, if a hundred pound man  . . .

Okay, side issue. Most Americans back then, and even today, don’t think in kilograms or kilometers, nor distinguish mass from weight in everyday thought, so . . .

If a hundred pound man throws a one pound brick at ten miles per hour, it will propel him backward at one tenth of a mile per hour. 1 times 10 = 0.1 times 100. We are ignoring friction from the ice, the atmosphere, and probably a bunch of other things.

So, if you want to go faster, throw more bricks, right? If you throw a thousand bricks, you should be able to go pretty fast, right? Wrong, because the first brick your throw in the new scenario will have to move not only the hundred pound man, but also the other 999 pounds of bricks.

Increasing the amount of fuel carried quickly brings about diminishing returns. More fuel alone is not the answer.

In a Newtonian scenario, the faster the propellant leaves the rocket engine, and the more propellant you use, the faster you can go. LOX and LH are probably near the practical  maximum for propellant speed by chemical reaction. The logical next step would be to use a non-chemical energy source to activate our propellants, such as a nuclear powered rocket. Even that won’t get us to the stars, but it makes sense for travel inside the solar system.

Before Apollo, everyone who read science fiction knew that, which is why the Scorpius and her sisters in the Rip Foster book are nuclear powered. So were the ships in Bullard of the Space Patrol, a marvelous fix-up novel by Malcolm Jameson that no one remembers today. So were the ships in the Dig Allen series (1959 – 1962), six great but forgotten novels, and the ships of the Tom Corbett books, which were not so great and are not completely forgotten.

Star Trek put all these early concepts out of business. Warp speed was a necessity for roaming the galaxy, but it made nuclear rockets look old fashioned. I think that’s too bad. There is still room for them in science fiction, and certainly in real life.

I haven’t mentioned Heinlein yet. The Rolling Stone was nuclear, but he quickly moved on to torch ships, which had the capacity of total annihilation of matter. He never explained how that could be done, but the result would be “propellant” moving at essentially lightspeed. You can’t get faster than that without warp drive. His torch ships roamed the solar system and went on to explore nearby stars.

I stole that schtick for my coreships in Cyan, with a twist. See 23. Star Drives.

In a rational world — which we will probably never inhabit, but we can still write stories about — you would might use chemical rockets to get to LEO (low Earth orbit), nuclear powered rockets to zip around the solar system (fission powered if you were writing in the sixties, fusion powered if you were writing today), and “torch ships” to reach nearby stars. Beyond that, you would need FTL (faster than light) vehicles which, by our present understanding of the universe, are impossible.

Too bad about FTL, but why are we still using chemical propellants in the real world fifty years after Apollo? Fear of nukes, of course. There will be more to say about that on Wednesday.

581. The Traveler in Black

(The traveler in black) has many names, but one nature, and this unique nature made him subject to certain laws not binding on ordinary persons. In a compensatory fashion, he was also free from certain other laws more commonly in force.

John Brunner was a successful and popular author of science fiction and fantasy, but he is rarely mentioned in the same breath with Clarke or Asimov. He has fifty-nine books listed inside the cover of my copy of Traveler, and he won a Hugo for Stand on Zanzibar, but he never quite made it to the top rung of the ladder. I have a theory about that.

The blurb-quoted reviews on the back cover of my Traveler praise Brunner for his competence. Competence may get you to the party, but it doesn’t make the fans gather ’round you once you are there; and that isn’t completely fair either, since he once wrote a book that was as good as any in science fiction or fantasy. The Traveler in Black was his Old Man and the Sea.

My theory is that, like Clarke, Brunner was an idea man. His characters have just enough blood in their veins to carry the ideas, and not one drop more. Zanzibar is a prime example; all the characters in that novel were cyphers. It was a big book about big ideas, populated by little tiny people.

Traveler avoids the curse of dull character by the oddest of twists; the traveler has no character at all. His character is to not have character. And it works.

The traveler moves through a world of chaos, having no will and no agenda, and changes everything. He is cursed-blessed-given-created to answer wishes in the exact words they were asked.

It’s like a wishing well with a mean streak, but there is no mean streak in the traveler. He sadly shakes his head and does what he was created to do — gives people exactly what they ask for. And since people aren’t too bright, they don’t see the consequences that will attend their wishes. They almost always get what they really didn’t want. Many do not survive their wish fulfillment, and no one survives unscathed.

As you may guess, this uses up a lot of lesser characters. These are précis people; sketched out in a few words and gobbled up by the march of change. Only the traveler survives.

This sounds a bit like a Mad magazine view of history, but Brunner pulls it off through the non-personality of the traveler. He has no backstory. He has no motivations, only the geas to grant wishes. He is slowly carving reason out of chaos by letting chaos devour itself. There is a tremendous cost in human suffering, and the traveler witnesses it all, unable to warn or advise, compelled to grant whatever wish he encounters, whatever the cost to the wisher.

We don’t hear him think about this. He does not converse, although he is often the object of conversations. We only know his inner feeling by a shake of the head, a hesitation to speak, and the slow pace of his progress through the world. That this is one sad and weary entity is only acknowledged in passing. It is all a game of subtlety, conveyed by the stately beauty of the language in which it is written.

Traveler is a fix up novel of individual stories previously published in SF magazines, and stitched together by the traveler himself. It comes in two versions. The one I read first, many years ago, was called The Traveler in Black. Its cover is pictured here. The cover pictured at the top of the post is a later version with one more story called, of course, The Compleat Traveler in Black.

The odd spelling is a literary reference. I won’t elucidate. I’ll just let you feel superior if you recognize it.

580. Pavane

During the Golden Age, most science fiction was in the form of short stories, published in science fiction magazines. When paperbacks became popular, there was a need for novels, mostly short by modern standards. Authors and editors mined the SF magazines for interrelated short stories that could be linked together and somewhat rewritten to appear as if they were novels. They became known as fix-up novels. The next three on my best list are all fix-up novels: Pavane today, The Road to Corlay (set for April 17, but these things sometimes change), and The Traveler in Black this Wednesday.

Pavane by Keith Roberts (publication date 1968) is not to everybody’s taste, but is one of my all time favorites. It is an alternate universe novel, set in the twentieth century in a world where the Catholic Church has maintained its power. The universe-changing event was the assassination of Queen Elizabeth the First, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish Armada.

Of course, the people of Pavane don’t know that they are an alternate. Their world is simply the world. Other than a brief introduction, the novel is written from that perspective. Things are explained, as they must be in any novel, but only enough that someone in the world of Pavane would understand.

(If I wrote a story about a blacksmith, I would explain enough that a college student could understand, not enough for an alien from Alpha Centauri to understand.)

This makes Pavane a bit challenging, but Roberts does his job well. The challenge is slight, and the reward is an abundance of ambiance.

Pavane takes place in a cold, hard world, and the characters fit their situations. Jesse Strange, in the first story The Lady Margaret is so dedicated to the family business (haulage by steam road waggons) that he passes up love and ignores friendship. Rafe, the student signaler, is engaging, but doomed. The story of the artist Brother John is positively grim.

All this sounds like I’m saying, “Don’t read this book,” but in fact I give it my highest recommendation. You will be forced to confront this alternate culture by digging deep into what makes it work, and any time one has to learn another way of thinking from the inside, the mind and the heart are enriched.

The ending called Coda is a disappointment. Roberts gets up on his soap box for a brief but embarrassing moment to try to justify his culture. Cultures don’t need justification; they just are. And every one of them, including yours and mine, is a mixture of joy and horror.

Probably the most notable part of the novel is the sheer beauty of the writing. At least, that is my take. I have found beauty of writing to be extremely subjective, but Pavane hits the sweet spot for me. I invite you to see if it hits yours.

One thing for sure. Thirty pages in, you will already know if you love it or hate it.

Pavane is available used or e-book from Amazon, or if you are lucky at your local used book store.

579. Guilt

How many times have you seen it: the massive city, the grinding machinery of the state, the downtrodden under the wheels of the machine — it’s a classic dystopia. One man (or, rarely, woman) fights back, foments a rebellion, and it all comes crashing down, ushering in a new day.

End of movie or novel.

Well, maybe . . .

It seems to me that this trope has been overused. I have no real argument with all those stories that end with the destruction of a dystopia, but I was looking for something a bit more subtle in Like Clockwork. There is something resembling a downfall (you’ll get no spoilers here) but it doesn’t come at the end, and those who bring it about have to face the reality of what they have done. Here’s a taste.

(Hemmings) laid his head on his crossed arms. His heart hurt.

Life may be nasty, brutish, and short. Life may be eternal in the lap of Jesus. Or life maybe a recurring year, extended far too long, but it is still life. And Hemmings had taken the lives of men who had done him no wrong.

He had not known the others who had died, but he clearly remembered the guard at the waggon door. He grieved for him.

I know exactly where this scene originated.

I was a young teen. I had recently discovered the local public library and my hundredth-or-so book was Underwater Adventure by Willard Price. Overall, it was a good book, although no better or worse that the average I was reading at the time. However, one scene knocked me out.

The villain, posing as a friend, went for a dive with the mentor. The two brothers who were the heroes of the book were elsewhere. The villain contrived to have the mentor trapped underwater, and left him there to drown.

Two things about this affected me. First, the mentor did not make a brilliant and heroic escape. He actually did drown. Second, the villain — who was pretty scummy and eventually came to a well deserved bad end — came up out of the water full of remorse. Not enough remorse to go back and save the mentor, but enough to be shaken.

The scene was told from the villain’s perspective. In that moment, I identified with him far more than I had identified with the cardboard heroes. Through him, I came to an understanding of how it would feel to take the life of a good man. It was something worth knowing, and something a bit more real than most of what I was reading at the time.

So here I am, decades later. I have a debt to Willard Price for that moment of clarity, and I’m paying it forward.

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.